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February 2013: Mountain Dwellers from the Mists of Time

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Mountain Dwellers from the Mists of Time

Mountain Dwellers from the Mists of Time

Wildlife artist Robert Fuller spent a rainsodden few days in Snowdonia trying to track down one of the UK's most iconic animals as featured in the Yorkshire Post .

WHILE my school friends jetted off to Spain, my holidays were always spent in North Wales as a child. My father was born in Snowdonia during the war and lived in a cottage opposite Snowdon. This cottage has stayed in the family ever since and every year we would go to canoe and climb some peaks. While we were climbing the mountains we would look forward to spotting the strange, shaggy mountain goats that roam wild here. These sure-footed creatures are so tough that they can survive in this unforgiving mountainous terrain. They are believed to originate from the Middle East and were brought over to this country by Neolithic man who prized them for their skins, meat and milk.

Farmers during the Iron Age took the goats to the mountains as they were the only animal able to graze the precipitous crags. But the number of goats declined in the 19th century when they were replaced by sheep. Sheep were more popular commercially with farmers because of the high price of wool. The goats that were left became feral and were confined to the mountains in small isolated herds. At New Year, I went to stay with my parents who now live here. As I was driving back from a walk, I spotted a herd clinging to the side of a disused slate quarry in the pouring rain.

I spoke to my dad about them that night. This particular herd of goats live in the disused Dinorwic Slate Quarry and graze in the sessile oak woodland opposite Llanberis and just up the road from my parent's cottage. I've always had a fascination for these prehistoric looking goats and decided to make the time to watch them properly on this visit.

It seemed to rain solidly for the entire stay - we had four inches of rain in three days! But the weather looked set to improve, so I stayed on a bit longer to get some decent photographs.
I decided to do a reccie first without my cameras in tow to see where the goats were. They can be surprisingly difficult to locate. I wanted to find out where the herd bedded down for the night so that I could be up early the next day and find them easily. With three cameras, three lenses and a tripod to lug about I don't want to be searching over difficult terrain for the animals. My camera rucksack can weigh more than 25kgs, so it's easier if I can walk straight to where they are!

I checked the quarry first, but there was no sign of them there so I headed into the wood instead. I didn't have any joy here either so I walked out onto a slate slag heap which protruded out into the valley and served as a vantage point back into the trees. I spotted a few white spots moving through the wood and so I got my binoculars out for a closer look. It was the herd. The herd numbered about 20 in total. It seemed to be a breeding herd as there were nannys and kids, some young males and only one large billy who unfortunately had a broken horn. I was slightly disappointed, he wasn't exactly the 'alpha'male I was hoping for. I headed down towards them and when I got to within about 100 yards, the unmistakably strong whiff of goat hit me. It was dusk by now and they were beginning to settle down for the night. I now had them pinpointed ready for the following day and so set off on the two mile hike back to the cottage.

On the way back home I saw another herd of goats on a wide ledge in the smaller Vivien quarry. There were mainly billys in this herd with impressive swept back horns. I watched as they tussled with silver birch saplings and occasionally locked horns with their rivals. So, I decided to return here in the morning instead as I thought this herd would be better to photograph. It was dark as I left the quarry, and the ravens were honking from a slate ledge. I had forgotten my torch making the walk home a bit tricky, but it had been worth it.

I was out well before dawn, in spite of the rain. I took my torch this time and shone the beam down to the ledge in the quarry where I had seen the goats yesterday. My hunch that they would stay put overnight was right I could just make out their shapes in the mist. I made my way carefully down towards them, stopping 30 yards away and sheltering by the quarry face until first light. I wanted the goats to know I was there so that they could get used to my presence before I started to photograph them. But I was unsure how these now wild animals would react to me. As I took off my heavy rucksack they turned and looked my way. They kept a careful eye on me but did not move away.

As the morning light began to penetrate through the mist the billys stood up and stretched before picking a route that I hadn't spotted up to the top of the quarry. I watched with dismay as they picked their way over the scree with a sense of purpose. There was no way I could follow them along this route. I made my way back up the side of the quarry. By the time I had caught up with them they had joined up with the breeding herd that I had seen yesterday and were grazing in the dense oak woodland that surrounds the quarry. The goats nibbled at holly and bilberry bushes. They pruned back heather, swallowed bark, twigs, grass and even ate moss.

The saying that 'there is nothing a goat doesn't eat' was evidently true and it occurred to me that this herd were actually shaping the forest floor. All over the world I have seen how goats can destroy habitats by overgrazing them. But it was clear that here in this wet, unforgiving climate a small population is sustainable. Their population is however managed, and culls have taken place officially and unofficially over the years. They have become quite iconic in the area and I doubt that they will ever be totally eradicated.

I followed them through this ancient woodland, where the tree branches were twisted and coated with moss and lichen dripping with water. It felt almost primeval, as if I was some kind of ancient herder. Back in Neolithic times wolves, bears and lynx would also have stalked these herds.
There was evidently some tension between the billys as they approached the females. Occasionally I got photographs of tussles between them. By early afternoon it stopped raining. The herd wandered out of the forest gloom and into the old slate quarry. They passed the remains of tiny cottages where the slate workers once lived. I photographed them here standing dramatically against the stark mountainous landscape that is typical of Snowdonia. These were the kind images that I was hoping to capture on camera.

They continued on heading down towards some of the lower levels of the quarry. One billy accidentally bumped into another, causing it to turn and fight. They both reared up on their hind legs before crashing down on one another. As their horns clashed the noise echoed off the slate walls. Argument resolved they turned and headed on with the rest of the herd.
By mid afternoon their pace slowed and some lay down to chew their cud. I took the opportunity to get really close. I had now been with them for eight hours and they were quite used to me. I knelt down and crawled to within three metres of one billy, but stopped short of him when he bent his horns down towards me and eyed me up in silent warning.
I spent another hour carefully creeping around the herd taking photographs as they rested. It was starting to get dark anc I assumed that they would spend the night here. But without warning they all suddenly stood up and headed off, apparently looking for more grazing. I was quite far away from my car so with some reluctance I left the goats and began the steep climb back. Despite spending a whole day with the herd I never did get used to the pungent smell of goat - how anyone can eat goat's cheese is beyond me!

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