Roughly half way along the Exmoor coast lies a valley. A mysterious place the history of which is clouded by myth and legend. Once even more mysterious before its stone monuments were vandalised and laid waste and before the motor car had brought visitors in their thousands. Ancient peoples once lived in the valley's hollow which had been formed by the melting glaciers even earlier still. Little evidence remains of the stone circles and standing stones or of the people who lived in the shadow of Holworthy Hill. Yet there is a living history in this valley. An ancient and rare animal lives here as it once lived all those long years ago.
Goats have been recorded in the valley of rocks over many centuries. The Domesday book recorded seventy-five goats in the Manor of Lyntonia. Over the years the fortunes of the goats have been somewhat mixed and man's intervention has played an important part in their history. We know goats were removed in the mid-nineteenth century as Coopers guide of 1853 tells us that formerly wild goats were encouraged in the valley, and that it was felt necessary to destroy them as they killed so many sheep by butting them over the adjacent cliffs. Goats were again introduced into the valley in 1897 by Sir Thomas and Lady Hewitt. These were domestic goats believed to have come from Sandringham and although not ideally suited to the harsh environment of the valley survived as a small, mainly white herd until they eventually died out in the 1960s. The herd in the valley today originated from the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland and were introduced in 1976. They are well suited to the valley environment and breed freely. This goat is our original native breed, introduced by the very first farmers, but further developed and shaped by the harsh climate of Northern Europe, so that it is small and stocky with a large rumen that can be packed full of poor grade fodder which then acts like a furnace to keep it warm. Even its ears are small to ward off the effects of frost, and its overall appearance is very much in keeping with the Exmoor Pony, a breed that developed in similar conditions. In fact, the British Native Goat has been termed the 'Exmoor Pony Of The Goat World'.
As a domestic animal, this was the goat of our Celtic ancestors and of Roman Britain. More of the same were brought in by the Saxons, and they in turn were stolen by Viking raiders who kept the same kind of goat back home. William the Conqueror inadvertently encouraged them to go feral when he destroyed whole village communities to create the New Forest, and this goat was the herding animal of the Medieval manor and the later village green. Sadly, in domestication, it is no more. But fortunately for us, for it is an invaluable part of our heritage, it has managed to survive in the wild as a remnant population of feral herds that includes the goats of the Valley of Rocks.
In January the wind blows cold and South Cleave is crusted with snow. Yet this is the season when the goats have their kids. Few witness the nannies giving birth for they retire to places of privacy and shelter. In a few days the nanny will rejoin the herd. Sometimes a nanny will have twins. She will lick each kid clean and almost immediately they will be able to stand and follow their mother. Ravens, crows, foxes and birds of prey will quickly clean up the afterbirth and any still born kids. The new-born kids are very vulnerable during their first few days of life, especially if the weather is very wet and cold. Nannies will hide their kids in safe places like rock crevices or under the heather whilst they graze nearby. Last year's female kids will graze alongside their mothers learning safe places to hide their own kids when the time comes. Soon after kidding the goats will be ready to mate again. Even if a kid from the first mating dies this second mating will produce another kid five months later in June or July. As the kids grow they start to become more adventurous and often play together in kid groups watched over by one of the mothers. At this time of year the males and females graze together but soon the males will drift away and form a separate group. In the winter the grass is low in nutrients and the early flowers of gorse will be a welcome addition to the diet. The males prefer more woody growth to the females and will consume tree bark, gorse and thorn bush. They also like ivy and will strip it from the dry stone walls.
The goats alternate between periods of feeding and periods of rest when they lie down and ruminate or 'chew the cud'. They have four parts to their stomachs; the un-chewed food is stored and then formed into round balls which are regurgitated and chewed before being swallowed again. When they have finished chewing the cud they will sleep but one goat always stays awake to watch for danger. The goats are protected from the rain by long waterproof coats which feel greasy to the touch. Next to their skin there is a fine layer of cashmere which keeps out the intensest cold.
Springtime in the Valley sees early purple orchids standing proudly amongst the lush grass. This is a time of plenty for the goats. Grass is the mainstay of their diet but they also enjoy heather and bramble and eat small amounts of bracken, foxglove and other wild flowers. The kids grow and little spiky horns start to appear. They feed themselves well now but will still suckle milk from their mothers until they are about twelve weeks old. At this time of year the billies move away to higher ground and nearby woods on Hollerday Hill where they will stay for the summer, returning to join the females and kids in August ready for the rut. When the weather gets very hot and dry the billies sometimes go down the cliffs onto the rocky foreshore and then walk into Lynmouth to drink from the river.
Member of Friends of the Goats keep an eye on the herd, making sure that there are no problems. This local Society was formed in 1997 and fund raises for the herd's welfare.