A CONTROVERSIAL and historic herd of goats has been put on their equivalent of the pill in an attempt to limit their numbers and save a nationally important woodland.

A team of ex-army sharpshooters was put to work darting 50 of the Inversnaid goats, on the shores of Loch Lomond, with a contraceptive in an operation launched by landowner, the RSPB.

It is the first time the new technique – using an immuno-contraceptive which cuts out the goats’ mating urge – has been used in Scotland.

The darting is intended to stop some of the goats breeding, to protect the Pollochro Woods, 222 acres of the bird and environment charity’s 2,000-acre Inversnaid reserve.

The government agency Scottish Natural Heritage has said the woods, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) are being damaged by goat grazing.

RSPB Inversnaid reserve warden Fraser Lamont said the goats eat young tree shoots.

“There are open areas where older trees are dying off and nothing is coming through to take their place... the goats will walk up trees to eat the mosses and lichens some of which have taken hundreds of years to develop,” he said.

But the goats are a tourist attraction and cutting their numbers has been difficult for the RSPB.

Goat experts say the Inversnaid goats have many characteristics of the now-vanished British primitive goats, and are a valuable genetic resource.

A cull of the goats three years ago when 20 were shot dead sparked a social media furore, with threats to RSPB staff, and local people have expressed concern that the management of the animals could kill them off.

Dave Beaumont, the RSPB’s South Scotland Reserves manager, says the new contraceptive technique is humane, more effective than culling and avoids the need for lethal force.

“The last thing that we really want to be doing as a conservation organisation is shooting things, and trying to find a non-lethal method here has been particularly challenging,” he said.

“We could fence the whole thing and move any herbivores from the outside but that would in effect keep them away from any winter shelter and they would starve or die of hypothermia out on the hill.

“The more traditional method of using a stalker has been used in the past but nowadays public perceptions are that you should avoid using lethal control at all costs,” he said.

The marksmen from Animal Welfare Solutions, a Monmouth-based firm, spent two weeks camped out on the 2,000-acre RSPB Inversnaid reserve.

They first helped assess the number of goats and those animals which used Pollochro Woods and then set about darting 50 of them, using gas-powered guns to shoot a hypodermic needle into them to inject the contraceptive. The needle then falls out and is collected by the darting team.

The drug works on both sexes and lasts for three years and it is hoped darting 50 goats – less than half the total number thought to range in and around the reserve – will cut breeding and reduce the number grazing in Pollochro Woods.

“With natural mortality that should bring the population down without us firing a single shot,” said Mr Beaumont.

The local Strathard Community Council was also concerned at the cull. Chairman Fiona McEwan says the contraceptive technique may be a better solution – but says the RSPB should have consulted local people before going ahead: “The goats are symbol of Inversnaid and have been very important to both local people and visitors to the area, including folk walking the West Highland Way.

“We were only told about this exercise after it started. We’d like to see some information on the numbers: we’re really concerned the RSPB makes sure that the herd remains viable and stays there in the future.”