Keeping Goats: Becoming Popular Again
The recent upsurge of interest in self-sufficiency has increased the popularity of goats, and they can now be found in backyards or tethered on road verges as well as in dairy herds. Some are also kept for their good looks, others for their wool.
Goats are kept for four main purposes. In the British Isles their primary function is the production of milk, but in many other countries meat production is of greater importance. One breed has been developed as a specialist producer of wool, while other breeds have survived largely because of their attractive appearance, despite their relatively poor milk or wool yield.
Goats’ milk is highly valued as it differs from cows’ milk in several important ways and is useful in treating certain diseases. The fat particles in goats’ milk are smaller than those in cows’ milk and are more evenly distributed. Thus the cream rises more slowly and the milk can be frozen for longer periods without separating out. The curd is softer, and the milk also contains a much higher level of salt.
These factors, combined with what is known as the greater natural buffering quality (the well-balanced components) of goats’ milk, make it more easily digested, and valuable in the feeding of infants or those who suffer from disorders of the digestive tract, such as ulcers. It is also a useful substitute for cows’ milk in people suffering from allergic conditions which are caused by a reaction to the bovine protein in cows’ milk, because goats’ milk does not cause this reaction.
Milk absorbs odours easily and should not be stored near anything which smells strongly. This accounts for the reputation which goats’ milk has acquired—sometimes the male goats, with their characteristic strong odour, have not been separated from the females which are being milked.
Apart from being drunk fresh, goats’ milk is processed into many other products including butter, yoghurt and cheese.
Most breeds of goat in Britain are used for milk production. Goats of dairy type were imported in large numbers in the late 19th century, mainly from Switzerland but also from North Africa and the Middle East. Some of these goats have been kept as pure breeds, such as the Saanen and Toggenburg, but in most cases the imported goats were mated with native animals to produce new breeds such as the British Saanen, British Toggenburg, British Alpine and Anglo-Nubian. In addition, two native breeds of goats have survived—the Golden Guernsey and the English.
The most popular specialist milking breed of goat is the Saanen. It originated in the Saane and Simme valleys in Switzerland but it has been exported all over the world. It is pure white in colour and should never have any black or other colour hair. The Saanen is a very docile breed, this quality resulting from the Swiss practice of stall-feeding throughout the winter.
The Saanen is a medium-sized goat with a leggy, lean conformation typical of dairy goats. The face is long with a concave profile, and the ears are carried alert and pricked forward. It may have a beard or tassels, but neither is essential. In Switzerland the Saanen is described as hornless, but in practice some goats are horned, and as the continued selection among goats for hornlessness results in an increase in the incidence of hermaphroditism, the normal practice is to use horned goats for breeding, and to remove the horn buds from the young kids under anaesthetic.
The British Saanen
This breed was developed in Britain by mating imported Saanen goats with native stock, and it was established as a breed in the early 1920s. It is very similar to the Saanen in type and temperament, but is larger and stronger and achieves higher yields of milk. Yields of more than 2000kg (4400lbs) of milk in one year have been surpassed by some outstanding animals. This breed is the most popular milking goat in Britain today.
The first Swiss breed to be exported to Britain was the Toggenburg, seven animals arriving from Paris in 1884. It originated in the districts of Obertoggenburg and Werdenberg but, like the Saanen, it has been exported to many other countries.
The Toggenburg has a distinctive colour pattern. The base colour varies considerably from light fawn to mid-brown, but the white markings are typical. The muzzle is white, and a white stripe runs up each side of the face, in front of the eyes and around the edges of the ears. The inner surfaces of the legs are white, as are the outer surfaces below the knees and hocks. There is often a white area around the tail region and sometimes also around the tassels on the neck.
This breed is a smaller animal than the Saanen, and the milk yield is also lower, which is the main reason for its relative unpopularity. Both sexes grow long hair, sometimes seen as a fringe down the back and hind-quarters, but in some cases covering the entire body except for the head, neck and legs.
The British Toggenburg
This breed originated from a mixture of imported Swiss Toggenburg animals and native British goats, and was recognised as a breed in 1925. It is larger than the pure Toggenburg and has stronger bones and a more robust conformation. The head and ears are larger and the facial profile is straight. The hair is always short, and the base colour may be darker, sometimes as deep as chocolate brown. The milk yield is also higher than that of the Toggenburg.
The British Alpine
Although this breed derived in large part from imported animals, it cannot trace its ancestry directly to any foreign breed. It evolved from general crossbreeding in the early part of this century but Swiss blood predominated and a famous female, Sedgemere Faith, imported in 1903, was a dominant influence in the early years of its development. Sedgemere Faith was black in colour with the same white markings found in the Toggenburg, a colour pattern which is now established in the British Alpine breed.
The visual appeal of the British Alpine arises partly from its glossy black coat and contrasting white markings. Otherwise the breed is very similar to the British Toggenburg, although it is usually a little larger with longer legs and has a greater capacity for browsing and bulky foods.
This goat is a complete contrast. It is a long-legged animal, with an upright stance and head held high. The convex curve of the nose and the long, pendulous ears are very distinctive. The colour is most commonly red or tan, but it varies widely through mottled or dappled greys and tans, and black hairs may be intermingled with red, white or cream. Any colour is permissible. The coat is short, glossy and free from any long fringes of hair
The Golden Guernsey and the English Both are minority breeds, having been revived only recently. The Golden Guernsey is a relatively small animal, more robust than the specialist dairy breeds, but achieving a lower yield of milk. The colour varies, but is usually an attractive honey-gold with no white markings. The English breed is based on native goats and is much hardier than the other dairy breeds. It is most commonly grey or brown in colour with a distinctive black line (eel-stripe) running down the back from the base of the horns to the tail. There are also dark stripes on the front of the legs. The hair is often long with a woolly undercoat. Horns are present in both sexes and sweep backwards and outwards.
Meat and wool
In Britain there are no breeds kept specifically for meat, although the consumption of goat meat is increasing, largely as a result of the immigrant population. In some parts of the world, such as China and India, goat meat is an important part of the diet. In Britain the source is mainly young males which are surplus to the breeding requirements. The joints are very lean, which is suitable for current demand.
Within the last few years the interest in wool-producing goats has been revived in Britain. Only one breed, the Angora, is bred for this purpose, and it has been imported from New Zealand and Australia. Angora goats evolved in Asia Minor and take their name from a province in Turkey, but they have been exported widely to North America, South Africa and Australasia. They are pure white in colour, with wool that hangs in long, lustrous ringlets. The whole conformation is small and slender, with a delicate face and long pendulous ears.
The wool, known as mohair, is distinctive for its lustre, resilience and warmth in relation to weight. It is used in textile manufacture in many ways, from high fashion knitwear to carpets. It is blended with other wools to give increased lustre, strength, ability to absorb dyes, and less tendency to `ball up’ on the surface. The quality of the wool is assessed by measuring the diameter of the fibres. Kid mohair is the softest and the finest with a fibre diameter of 20-30 microns (one micron equals one millionth part of a metre); adult mohair is coarser.
Perhaps the rarest and most endangered breed of goat in Britain is the Bagot. This breed has never been selected for commercial qualities and is of little value for milk, meat or wool production. It is a small to medium-sized goat with long hair and large curved horns which sweep backwards. The head, neck and forequarters are mainly black, although there is usually a white blaze down the face. The hindquarters are mainly white. A similar colour pattern is found on the Schwarzhal goat in Switzerland, and this breed is probably the ancestor of the Bagot.
Goats can be kept in a wide variety of conditions, although the specialist dairy breeds based on imported animals are delicate and need to be housed and protected from bad weather.