The Burren Feral Goats
Over the vast expanses of the mountainous Burren region in Co Clare
one can see the magnificent sight of a number of feral goat herds (one such herd is shown above).
In recent years a noted population increase has been seen and this has lead to various issues due to
the ‘nuisance factors’ which can arise due to the movements of these ‘sometimes large’ roaming herds such as,
the knocking of stones off walls, for the farming community in the area. Unfortunately, a number of ‘secret round-ups’ have
taken place in recent years which resulted in vast amounts of the feral goats being transported inhumanly in overcrowded vehicles
under the darkness of night to an ‘undisclosed’ location where they were slaughtered. No thoughts were afforded to these magnificant
creatures, there were small kids separated from their mothers, rutting males attacking females, etc, we have no doubt that during their
transport there were many goats injured and even possible fatalities. There is no need for this type of behaviour or treatment to
occur and the transporting of animals in such conditions is illegal under the European Transport of Animals Act which is part of law in
Ireland. Not only are these past ‘round-ups’ a travesty for the feral goats who were shipped off but no thought has been afforded to
our native Old Irish Goat breed, members of which were no doubt contained within the numbers of those which were destroyed.
Whilst we all acknowledge that there needs to be some reduction/management with the numbers of goats in each of the herds, and we
do empathise with the farmers who are directly affected by the herds which pass through their lands,
we need to set aside past differences and work together as there are better ways to organise and manage these herds for the good of all.
A dwindling number of the goats within these herds are members of our native “Old Irish Goat” breed, efforts are ongoing to attempt to
preserve this OUR NATIVE breed before it becomes extinct. One group in particular, The Old Irish Goat Society, commenced
a selection process last year, with the assistance of Raymond Werner from the UK, during this a number of these goats were gathered
and put into a purpose built ten acre holding on the land of Mr Patrick McCormack, in order to create a gene pool,
conduct a study on the breed and to carry out a monitored breeding plan to ensure that this native breed which has been present
in the area for centuries is still around for our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc to see and admire.
This is in itself a good start in the preservation of the “Old Irish Goat” but much more needs to be done in order for the breed
to be saved for posterity. Meetings with various parties continue to take place and we continue to hold onto hope that a
humane management plan can be agreed upon by all involved. We welcome any contact from farming groups, preservation/wildlife groups,
individuals, etc in relation to the creation of a ‘Best Practise Management Format’ for the feral goats of the Burren.
A Report Written By Raymond Werner From The UK On -
THE OLD IRISH GOAT- A PRIMITIVE BREED IN
NEED OF RECOGNITION AND PRESERVATION
- It is a popularly held belief, still quoted in the literature, that the Old Irish goat always had scimitar shaped horns, described as rising in parallel from the head and not turning outwards at the tips. This idea arose with an original description found in The Book of The Goat by Holmes Pegler (1875), and was reinforced by the fact that Irish imports into England and Scotland were made up of nannies whose horns did not generally reflect the variation found in that of the males. In actuality, the horns of the Old Irish goat were quite variable, ranging from scimitar, through moderately twisted and curling, to a dorcas twist. Polled goats were known, but rare. So much so, in fact, that the polled condition in feral herds of old type is more likely to have originated from introgression with stock of Swiss type than a continuation of an original characteristic.
- The earliest English descriptions of the Old Irish goat confirm that the breed was almost exactly like the Old Welsh goat, Old Scotch goat and Old English goat in both its general appearance and its essential breed characteristics.
- The Old Irish goat, along with the other old varieties of the British Isles just mentioned, was in reality a small animal with a deep body that stood firmly on short legs. The coat was of medium length to long and shaggy; the ears small and pricked; the head long and dished. All the four basic colours found in the goat (tan, black. grey and brown) were represented. Tan varied between white (the extreme dilute of tan), through yellow, fawn, golden and red to chestnut/mahogany. Colour patterns included Bezoar or wild patterning, which may have been quite common; through lightbelly, darkbelly, mahogany (the pattern not the colour), no-pattern tan and no-pattern black. The descriptions of rusty or reddish black probably refer to the mahogany pattern, which is basically a black-tan roan, or else chocolate in which the longer hair may fade or bleach to a lighter shade. The colour pattern lateral stripes may have occurred, but confirmation is at present lacking. “And white” rarely "pied” refers to white patching, which seems to have been typical of the Old Irish goat. Swiss patterning did not occur in the Old Irish breed, and its presence was, and is, a sure indication of introgression with stock of Modem Swiss derivation.
- The type of the Old Irish goat, along with the other old varieties, conformed to a standard that might best be described as a "cold weather goat". Thus, in its conformation, and especially in relation to both Bergmann's and Allen's rules, it has the characteristics of a frost-proof breed that needs to cope with extreme cold whilst fuelling itself on large quantities of rough herbage. Goats of very similar type, and almost certainly of the very same origin in time and space, have traditionally been found all around the periphery of Europe. These goats comprise a distinct group that has been designated The Northern Breed Group.
ORIGIN AND HISTORY
- If we accept the standard interpretation of the origin and worldwide dispersal of the Neolithic, which brought agriculture and animal husbandry in its train, the goat was introduced into Ireland by one of the sea-faring peoples that settled there. Ireland's earliest Neolithic colonizers, the Megalithic' people, are generally cited; although The People Of The Leather Vessels, who brought metallurgy into Ireland, are also considered to have brought their stock. Incumbent on this interpretation of events is that these early colonizers came by sea from the eastern Mediterranean, it now being believed that the Cretan Wild Goat, with its short and close coat, gracile conformation, scimitar horn-shape and Bezoar colour and patterning, represents this earliest domesticant gone feral. If this were the case, then the earliest goat introductions had little in common with the breed type of the later Old Irish goat.
- It is possible to make some form of argument in favour of the Neolithic goat developing into a cold-weather type after its arrival in Europe. The obvious place would be Scandinavia, the obvious people those associated with the Germanic migrations. Timing and a consideration of the movements of the Teutonic people, however, along with an understanding of the climatic conditions of the period, would tend to mitigate against such a theory.
- There is some evidence to support the view that the domestic goat occurred in Europe during the Late Pleistocene; and considerable evidence that relates to its occurrence in Europe during the early Holocene. This is associated with the theory that a pre-Neolithic proper phase of livestock pastoralism, centred on cattle, sheep and goats- was associated with the Mesolithic of northern Europe, or even earlier. If this were indeed the case, the boreal climatic conditions following the last deglaciation, coupled with a right understanding of conditions during the last glaciation, would lead inexorably to the conclusion that the generalized northern pastoraIist goat developed rapidly into the All-weather type of the Northern Breed Group during the extremely cold phase associated with ice melt during the late Pleistocene. This would mean that the more gracile goats brought into Europe in general, and Ireland in particular, during the standard Neolithic would have been absorbed into what had rapidly become this distinct landrace type. It would also mean that the Old Irish goat was a "native" in the same sense that the oldest Red Deer population is.
- The view held by the present writer is that the Old Irish goat is a typical representative of The Northern Breed Group, an unimproved or primitive type that originated during a Late Pleistocene phase of pre-agricultural nomadic hunter-pastoralism in Northern Europe. It is therefore representative also of Europe's earliest landrace type, a breed that can be called "native" in the same way that we refer to “native" pony breeds, and namely for the reason that it is ideally suited to the climate, topography and style of husbandry that has traditionally been imposed upon it.
STATUS OF THE NORTHERN BREED GROUP
- Breeds belonging to the Northern breed Group are generally in decline throughout its traditional region of distribution. The Breed Group was formerly the only breed type of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Iceland, The Netherlands. Norway, Sweden and Denmark. It was possibly also the landrace type of the Baltic and Belgium, although more research is required to confirm this.
- In Wales, the total population, all feral, was around 300 in the middle of the last century. Although the overall number has increased since then, associated to some extent with an expansion of feral goat hefts onto abandoned low-lying sheep rearing areas, there has been an equal increase in introgression with stock of Modem origin. It is possible, therefore, that feral goats of the Old Welsh type are in decline.
- The surviving population of England, nearly all feral in two populations with some brought into smallholdings, a zoo and grazing schemes, is between 200 and 250.
- The total population of Scotland is generally cited as being around 4000. This information is outdated however, relating to figures published in 1993 that were, in some instances, quotes from figures relating to 1969. There I may, therefore, be as few as 3000 or less; and a recent survey, carried-out by the British Feral Goat Research Group on selected populations, would suggest that the total number of purebred feral stock might be 1500 or less.
- Iceland has a purebred, and inbred, population of the old type numbering around 300
- In the Netherlands, the Old Dutch goat came close to extinction, with only 4 purebred animals left. A breeding programme that introduced goats of the 'right type', some having obvious Swiss breeding, has brought numbers up to around 2000.
- There is one feral population representing the Old Norwegian type in Norway. Norway dabbled with goats of improved Swiss type for a while, but ultimately rejected this as unsuitable for the climate and style of husbandry. Since then, the Old Norwegian breed has been retained, but improved to a dairy standard by focusing on the, and limiting the number of, sires used. The Norwegian goat of today is therefore an 'improved primitive' breed with a decreasing gene base in relation to its genetically variable origins.
- Sweden, too, has its own primitive version of landrace goat of the Northern Breed Group. Swedish goat breeders are following in the wake of Norwegian goat improvement, however, importing Norwegian sires in increasing numbers. There is a rare relic of the Old Swedish landrace type in Germany. This is the Jamtland variety that was formerly kept in the Thuringer zoo park. Erfurt.
- The Old Danish goat is now extinct.
PRESERVATON OF THE TYPE OF THE NORTHERN BREED GROUP
- Ultimately, the best gene bank for goats of the relic Northern Breed Group may be considered to be feral populations where there is no pressure for improvement, populations are still large enough to retain genetic variability within the original type, and they are living in conditions best suited to their origins and former style of husbandry. Having stated this as the ideal, it needs to be pointed out that the world population of purebred goats belonging to the relic Northern Breed group still existing in a feral state may be as few as between 2000 and 2,500, added to which will be an as yet unknown number surviving in Ireland generally (both Eire and Northern Ireland).
- Nearly all, say 95%, of all surviving feral goats of the type are located in the British Isles. The status of feral goats in the United Kingdom at least is ambiguous in the extreme, as they are classified as neither wild nor domesticated, and therefore are afforded no protection in law. Theoretically, they are the property of the landowner on which their heft is located or onto whose land they wander, although such ownership needs to be proven. All too often, however, they are shot before the niceties of such legal considerations can be established.
- Legislation is urgently needed to afford recognition and protection to the remaining feral populations of the old type, along with legislation that protects feral goat populations in general.
A STRATEGY FOR PRESERVING THE IRISH FERAL GOAT.
- In the first instance, an urgent initial study of the breed type of all the surviving feral goat populations in Eire needs to be carried-out.
- This, initially, would concentrate on categorizing each population in relation to whether or not they are (1) purebred of the Old Irish type (2) basically of the Old Irish type phenotypically, but with some documented history of introgression with goat stock of Modern type (3) manifestly an admixture of the Old and Modern types (4) wholly of Modern goat stock origin.
- A determination not to move stock from one population to another whilst the origin of individual 'herds' remains unclear. This is vitally important, and recognised as a basic principle in Scottish feral goat conservation as long ago as 1969.
- The setting up of local support groups/preservation societies for each surviving population. Their initial objective would be to change perceived opinion locally, publicize the value of the breed, and work towards protection and recognition at a local level. These local support groups could then be affiliated into an all-Eire preservation Society that could work at a national level for the recognition and preservation of the Irish feral goat as a whole.
- An initial population dynamics study of each population that will give some idea of total numbers, sex and age ratios and fertility rates.
- Work to ascertain the 'place' of each feral goat population with regard to future management. This should take into account the style of management; perceived nuisance and how this can be negated; optimum and minimum numbers in relation to genetic diversity, inbreeding, group structure, carrying capacity; special interests, including woodland, vegetation type etc.; and ecological and tourism value.
- A specific plan to ensure that management in the future will be based upon the preservation and promotion of the Old Irish type of goat. This is not to advocate culling or removal for culling or removals sake, but to recognised two tiers of feral goat in which the Old Irish goat plays a part: the purebred and otherwise. When, and only when, reductions in numbers are necessary for any sound reason, the strategy for promoting the Old Irish goat would come into play.
- A DNA study of selected Irish feral goat populations, linked into the work of the British feral Goat Research Group on English and Scottish populations.
Some History On Goats In Our County
In contrast with the prevailing perception among farmers today of goats as an uncontrolled nuisance, these animals were until quite recently, a standard and integral component of Burren farms, particularly important to the economy of small mixed holdings. Often referred to as the ‘poor man’s cow’, the browsing habits of goats meant that they did not compete for resources with other grazing stock, and were able to survive on rough vegetation and the plentiful supply of scrub on which they were often forced to browse. Many farms typically had a score of goats, while most others kept a minimum of two to run with the main herd. The importance of the goat in the Burren is reflected in local place names; for example Gabhair – a valley near Tubber, where the goat kids were penned before being weaned (Brew, 1998), and Aughavinna – ‘the valley of the kids’ near Bell Harbour.
Goats were primarily kept as a source of milk and kid meat and less so for their pelts. Goats milk was used for drinking and making cheese and in some cases, white butter, and was thought to be an excellent cure for asthma and eczema. The milk has a high buttermilk content and was commonly used to fatten young calves, the cow’s milk thus saved for sale and domestic use. In Inagh and Ennistymon, just south of the Burren, goat’s milk was commonly used to ‘to colour tea’ and in craggy districts, the poor people kept goats and made butter out of goat’s milk (IFE, mss no. 1453, p34). From Kilrush, we learn that fresh goat’s milk was called ‘bláthás’, and was used effectively at one time to treat tuberculosis (Mss. no. 1 p18). A few female kids (minseachs) were kept every year for breeding purposes, and according to Hynes (2001), these animals were fitted with gubáns (a hazel ‘cipin’ or rod tied to the kid’s horns with spun yarn) that prevented them from suckling while allowing them to eat.
Goats were usually hand milked once or twice a day in enclosures called ‘cahers’ at a safe distance from the farmhouse (any nearer to which their scavenging presence was actively discouraged), often by the children of the farm. Following kidding in the new year, goats and their young were usually separated, the latter kept by day in small structures or huts called ‘Crós’, which formed an annex to the caher or was located close to it.
The kids were allowed to suckle the mothers at night and in the morning, but were confined in the cró all day. These were referred to as ‘milk kids’ as opposed to ‘grass kids’ that had relatively tougher, stronger tasting meat. Kid meat was sometimes steeped in buttermilk to lighten the goaty taste. This meat was a dish traditionally associated with Easter Sunday dinner, and there was a huge fair for goat kids in Ennis the preceding Saturday.
An alternative method of denying kids grass is described by Brew (1998) who states that in the Tubber area, young goat kids, fattened for Easter, had hazel rods inserted in their mouths to prevent them from grazing. In many cases kids were given away as presents, while others were skinned and the pelts sold at Ennis. Butchers in Corofin and Ennistymon would also buy kids for 10 shillings each, and some traveling families were also known to buy kids and goats.
Another important reason for keeping goats was ostensibly to ‘bring luck’ to the herd and from a more practical perspective, to protect cattle from falling over ledges or cliffs in search of ivy of other fodder: the more nimble goat was quick to remove all such temptation. Vets were once known to frequently recommend the stocking of a goat to remove herbs that were linked to diseases relating to cattle.
An interesting custom relating to the use of goats was that of running a goat with the flock of sheep in winter so that in heavy snows the goat would lead the herd to the safety of elevated areas and avoid the sheltered areas that were prone to drifting. Some older farmers in the Burren insist that one would ‘have no luck’ for disturbing the goats. According to White (1972), horses love and are calmed by the odour from goats (released from glands behind the billies horns) and goats are said by some to reduce contagious abortion by removing ergot from meadows.
Traditionally, goats were so ‘humanised’ or tamed that they never roamed too far from home, and returned willingly for milking each night. Around October many goat herds were released into the uplands to mate with the wild pucks, returned voluntarily to the farm to kid the following January. In other cases, the herd had to be tracked down by their owner after the winter, still intact in their group, and brought home before foxes attacked the newborn kids. According to Hynes (in springtime, the mountains echoed with the shouts of ‘húr-gabhair’ as the teenagers collected the goats for kidding after a winter in the wild’.
In some cases, the goat’s natural inclination to roam had to be curtailed, to which end a method called ‘quiggering’ was commonly employed. This involved the anchoring of two goats together, using old bucket handles as necklaces, linked together by chains. Another system involved using a collar around the goat’s neck with a hazel stick protruding on either side to prevent them from jumping walls.
Many farmers feel that the present day absence of farmed goats is a primary contributory factor to the continued spring scrub. Whitehead (1972) notes that some 241,427 goats were exported from Ireland in 1926, but that ‘it was not long before the local people began to regret the shortage of goats, for the scrub soon started to spread and became well near impenetrable in parts where the cattle used to graze’. Goats are said to favour holly, ash, young elm, rowan, hazel, white and yellow yew while avoiding birch and oak. Goats are said locally to have been particularly fond of whitethorn: there was said to be no milk from the goat until the whitethorn buds appeared in spring.
In consulting with the elderly Burren farmers, many examples are given of areas that were scrub free twenty years or more ago when goats were common, but have now reverted to scrub or woodland. The corollary of this may also be seen in cases: areas where hazel scrub was once dominant have been reduced to bare ground with decaying hazel stumps as a result of goats being confined therein. The unusual eating style of goats, involving a twisting and pulling action, would often result in the death of a plant: an old Irish term for this browsing action is a ‘placín gabhar’, a term also used to describe somebody making a meal of something.
Back To Top Of Page