Story: Goats and goat farming

Page 1. History and overview

All images & media in this story

Goats (Capra hircus) have been domesticated for at least 9,000 years. Multi-purpose animals which can supply meat, milk and fibre, goats have been an essential part of communities through the ages. Even today more people worldwide drink milk and eat meat from goats than from any other animal.


More than 80% of the world’s goats live in Asia and Africa as domesticated or feral animals. Goats originate in warm, dry Mediterranean and western Asian countries. They are ruminants (animals with a rumen, where microbes digest eaten plant material, instead of a simple stomach), have a voracious appetite, and will eat a wide range of plants. Historically they have been blamed for the creation of some of the world’s major deserts. For example, goats were introduced to the forested island of St Helena in 1513. By 1815 the island had become a barren, rocky waste.

There are over 100 main breeds of goat worldwide, bred for milk, fibre or meat. Although easily domesticated, goats can quickly revert to a feral state if released from captivity.

Goat language

Mature male goats are called billy goats or bucks. Mature females are does; when they have young they are called nannies. Young goats are kids.

Goat characteristics

Male feral goats in New Zealand grow to about 70 centimetres high at the shoulder and 1.5 metres in length, weighing 50–60 kilograms. The males of farmed meat breeds may weigh up to 100 kilograms. Adult females are considerably smaller.

Both sexes usually have horns, and may be white, black, brown or a combination of colours. Male goats have chin beards and a pungent smell during the breeding season. Goats have flat tails, bare underneath, that point upwards, in contrast to sheep’s tails which hang down. Most breeds of goat have floppy ears, unlike sheep, which have pricked or upright ears. However, European dairy goat breeds also have pricked ears.

How to cite this page:

Allan Gillingham, 'Goats and goat farming - History and overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Allan Gillingham, published 24 Nov 2008