|Wild Goats Rutting - Isle of Mull, UK|
I’ve just returned from the Isle of Mull, where I spent most of my time tracking a herd of wild goats across various different types of landscapes within their habitat. Over the course of a few weeks, I was privileged to witness a whole variety of behaviour, including a birth, attempts at mating and (as pictured) a rut, as well as numerous types of social bonding and other herd behaviour. It’s fascinating to watch a group of animals over such a period as this, and witness their social hierarchy in action, as it is established, challenged, and redefined. Even as part of an established herd who spend most of their time grazing together, life in the wild is my no means straightforward. This becomes particularly evident in their rutting, where these shy, easy-going mammals demonstrate an enormous level of strength, power and determination – and as an observer, I was very happy not to be caught in the middle of it all!
On the day I took this, I had been sheltering in a rocky spot by the shore, hoping to catch up with a local otter (whose picture I posted in the previous blog), when my attention was drawn to the sound of clashing horns, about 200 yards behind me. A sub-group of six goats were standing on a grassy mound just above the coast line. The rutting goats stand opposite each other before one rears up on its hind legs before using the momentum of its fall back to earth to drive its weight head-first into the other. It’s an immensely powerful move, and as both sets of horns meet with great force, it’s possible to see the shock waves ripple back through the loose woolly coats of each animal, from their heads down towards their back ends. The sheer force is eye-watering, and I found it difficult not to wince a little each time they ram into each other with such force.
In spite of the power and ferocity of the rut, there were many aspects of this behaviour that seemed surprisingly civilised. The goats had chosen a site for their rut within a rectangle marked by the ruins of an old crofters’ building. This appeared to be established as their ‘ring’. As soon as one of the rutting goats stepped outside of this boundary, the clash was over temporarily, and both parties took a few moments to collect themselves before coming together again. As they battled it out further, the others goats in the group stood around watching, with one particularly dominant bystander looking almost like the umpire of a boxing match, standing close with his eyes fixed on the action, even breaking the goats up when they became too entangled. In between bouts, the goats go through a complex ritual of communication through licks, sniffs, and scraping at the floor with their hooves, a conversation in gesture which appeared to clarify the outcome of the previous rut, as well as offering them a moment of respite.
Assuming a position close by from which I could observe them (which was not difficult, since the goats themselves were so absorbed in the rut that they hardly paid any attention to me), I rested my camera on a rock. After taking and reviewing a few pictures, I was initially disappointed that they didn’t convey the sheer power of the battle between the goats – instead the images appeared rather static. Instead, I started using a slower shutter speed (1/15 sec) to ensure that more of the movement of the tussle was shown in the resulting images. Using such a slow shutter speed means having to throw away a lot of pictures in which the action appears as nothing other than a blur of wool and horns. But by moving the camera as precisely as possible with the movements of the goats, it was possible to get one or two shots in which some of the features were suitably sharp. These pictures demonstrate the turmoil of an individual caught up in this whirl-wind of behaviour, which is just what I wanted, and this shot was my favourite of the whole bunch.