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A short goat history lesson

Keeping goats makes you a bit of a weirdo in the farming world. All the regulations, data and medicines seem designed for pigs, sheep and cattle, with goats either not mentioned or featured as an afterthought. There are almost no vet medicines specifically designed and licensed for goats, for example, meaning we are almost always working from a sheep or cow dose when vaccinating and treating them. There is a reason of course, which is that goats are much, much less commonly kept as farm animals than cows, sheep and pigs. I was fascinated to discover recently that this wasn't always the case, though.

Before the Enclosures Acts of the 18th and 19th Centuries, you would have seen goats grazing on every common, heath and mountain up and down the country. Almost all ordinary people would have kept a goat or two, and goat milk and meat would have been universally consumed. You can see why the goat is a perfect household animal: a modern dairy goat produces about 6 pints of milk a day, but its earlier ancestors would have produced 3-4 pints; one or two goats would supply the perfect amount for a family. By contrast, cows produce somewhere around 20-30 pints each (or even more) - much too much for a family to get through! Goats are also very good at feeding themselves on what to other animals seems like poor grazing land - they thrive on shrubs, weeds, leaves and twigs and are excellent climbers so do well on steep slopes and rocky land. They were perfectly suited to grazing unimproved common land and areas not suitable for other types of farming. Cows, in contrast, require good pasture and lots of room, as well as being much too expensive for the average peasant to buy and keep.

The Enclosures Acts had the very important aim of making better productive use of the land to ensure that the growing urban population resulting from the Industrial Revolution could be properly fed. This wasn't so good for the ordinary rural dwellers and their goats, however! As common land became fenced off and ploughed up, the places where goats would have been kept for centuries gradually disappeared. The alternative - keeping a goat tethered - is often impractical and can quickly lead to goats getting infested with parasites (and therefore much less productive) or escaping and making a nuisance of themselves, and numbers of goats kept went into sharp decline.

Meanwhile, the goat was also suffering a disastrous decline in the highlands of Scotland. Again, they had been very widely kept as household animals and were perfect for grazing the otherwise unproductive, mountainous landscape. The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, however, saw huge numbers of highland dwellers driven from the land in order to make way for supposedly more profitable sheep farming. With them went the goats that they had traditionally kept and their role in grazing and managing the biodiversity of the area.

British goatkeeping has never really recovered from these two huge historical blows and numbers of goats remained pretty low throughout the twentieth century, with slight spikes around the First and Second World Wars. It is finally on the rise again now, however, with the low prices being paid for cow's milk driving some dairy farmers to switch from cows to goats and the increasing popularity of goats' milk and goats' milk products together with low supply leading to more attractive returns on goat farming. I'd like to think this is a trend which will continue as goats are fantastic animals with much to recommend them, and it would be nice to feel a bit more included in mainstream farming! However we will probably never see a return to the days when goats could be seen grazing in every town and village.

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