Sunday 2nd June 2013, I set out in glorious sunshine to undertake the longest sea kayak trip of my short paddling career. Helen calmly waved me off from Brixham, my brain clutching at an optimistic plan requiring my matchstick arms to drag me round the coast into Kingswear. A piece of wet seaweed held vertically confirmed the lack of wind and an abundance of red bingo wings in the town centre held testament to the sunshine. Weather conditions were perfect, the glistening sea beckoned me eagerly outwards.
The first few miles of the trip went without incident. I had my usual wrestle with the spray deck before launch, I cursed the fishermen at Berry Head for making me swing out away from their flying lead missiles and I made surprisingly good time to the cave that marks my journey past Cod Rock, a name that forces one to suffix it with “arrrrrrrrrr”.
The lack of swell gave me the chance to explore the rocks and small caves in the cliffs that rise up towards the old fortress. But my eyes were dragged upwards by a flock of goats stampeding around the cliff top. At first I smiled at their hairy exuberance as they celebrated the advent of sunshine with a vertigo inducing frolic. I quickly realised that all was not well in their world as these goats were being chased by a dog.
I regularly walk the paths along this cliff top and the goats are a recent addition. As are the notices upon all of the gates pleading with dog owners to keep their mutt on a leash. For some reason this advice did not apply to the owners of this dog which had clear remit to herd these goats in the name of canine entertainment.
I found myself witnessing an extreme version of the Richmond Park “Fenton” incident. The young labrador took no heed to its owner’s pleas as it chased the goats across ever more serious gradients. Dogs are natural hunters and this guy was clearly in touch with his genes as he separated one unfortunate nanny from the pack and pushed it further and further down the cliff. I sat helplessly in the kayak as Fenton’s distant cousin honed in on its prey forcing it towards a steep gully. The goat was eventually left with no choice but to make a final leap across this gully onto an incredibly precarious perch. It then stood with its hoofs crossed hoping that the dog would bottle the jump.
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Fortunately the goat’s gamble paid off and the labrador returned up the cliff to seek easier quarry. A few minutes later it appeared to grow bored and returned to its owners, or should I say two gormless idiots who had allowed him/it to wander so far out of control.
My focus returned to the goat. The animal showed no signs of relief of will to return to its comrades back up the cliff. After five minutes it gingerly stretched out a leg over the gully but made no attempt to make the return jump. I understood its quandary, the perch had been gained in terror with gnashing fangs as an incentive but now it had to return with the adrenaline gone. The price of failure was high a long drop into the sea with no accessible beach for miles.
I paddled to the left of the goat and shouted in an attempt to encourage it back across. It stared back forlornly and pawed the air in front of it. The poor thing was utterly crag fast.
It was difficult to know what to do in this situation luckily I had my VHF radio and decided to contact the coastguard who could relay the situation back to the land owner. Now this action came with its own peculiar brand of stress. VHF radio requires a license and the ability to follow strict radio protocol to ensure that the airwaves are left clean for genuine emergency traffic.
I had sat the exam and learnt my mayday procedures, pan pan distress calls and securite all station advice announcements. Questions concerning stranded goats did not feature. I had a moment of indecision wondering how the coastguard would react to a lone kayak calling in a sea based goat incident.
The goat pawed the air again spurring me into action.
“Brixham Coastguard, Brixham Coastguard, this is small kayak requesting conversation, over”
“Small kayak, small kayak this is Brixham Coastguard, channel 67, over”
[I dialled up to channel 67]
“Brixham Coastguard this is small kayak, I need to report a goat that may require assistance, over”
“Small kayak, please proceed over”
I then explained the situation and asked that the Coastguard contact the landowner. A palpable sense of relief came back over the airwaves that the Brixham Lifeboat would not need to stock up upon bales of straw. The Coastguard assured me that the Berry Head Estate Manager would be contacted and left me to paddle off on my merry way.
I took one last look at the vertically marooned animal then paddled off towards Kingswear safe in the knowledge that rescue was on its way. The rest of the day was sublime as I explored the rocky south Devonshire coast, encountered nudists who thought they were safe from prying eyes, gingerly paddled into all manner of caves and gullies and survived an aerial assault from a cantankerous territorial seagull who did not want me on his manor.
The trip went so well that I abandoned my plan to be met by car in Kingswear and turned tail to paddle back home. Four hours after witnessing “goatgate” I was back at the foot of the cliff. Billy goat had not moved an inch. The animal continued to paw the air, but clearly did not have the will to make the leap. I began to wonder whether the Coastguard had put my call down to fatigue. So I took some more video and returned post haste to the harbour at Brixham.
The goat’s predicament was really playing upon my mind. Furthermore feelings of real anger towards the dog’s owners began to surface. I bet they considered themselves to be animal lovers, yet they had no understanding of the distress that their animal had caused to another. From their vantage point they could have no idea that another beast was close to death due to their inability to read and act upon a sign. They would probably laugh about the whole incident on the way home as they merrily threw ice cream wrappers from the window of their car.
I phoned the Coastguard to advise them that the goat had made no progress and asked that I be put in touch with the Estate Office so I could hand over my video evidence. Two minutes later I was called by the Berry Head Estate. I agreed to walk up to their office and show them the film.
Thirty minutes they stared in disbelief at my footage. Another goat had recently been killed by a dog in the same area. They’d been out looking for this one after the Coastguard relayed my call, but now viewing the video they clearly understood why it had not been found.
The animal’s situation appears to be pretty clear. A rescue by humans is unlikely as it would probably endanger both animal and rescuers well beyond modern H&S limits. The goat either has to make the jump or await humane despatch via the rapid arrival of a bullet. The estate need to take proper advice before deciding how to act.
Now it would be easy to say “leave it, it’s only a goat”. Plenty of animals end up in far worse situations whilst out in the wild and have to deal with them all on their own. I can understand that sentiment, but this goat was under our care, it’s a captive goat and we’ve let the poor fellow down. Have a look at the video yourself and make your own mind up. Is it blind dog handling incompetence or just a bit of an unfortunate predicament for a mangy old goat. Am I being over sensitive to its plight? Maybe, but the poor bugger has stood there for over four hours. I’m willing to bet it is still there now.
For my part, I just want to scream at the dog’s owners. This is what happens when clear advise about the “outside” doesn’t apply to them. I want to show this video to every dog owner who has let their latent killing machine jump up at me and countered with the “Don’t worry he won’t do you any harm”.
Dog ownership clearly has many similarities with the lot of the cyclist. A small minority of red light jumpers and pavement travellers blights the perception of the genus as a whole. I suspect Berry Head Estate will now be having a long hard think about their policy concerning canine freedom.