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.
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.
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.
A milking goat is reported to have accompanied British navigator James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand. On Cook’s second voyage, he liberated goats from England in the Marlborough Sounds in 1773. Later introductions to nearshore islands, or around the coast, appear to have been to provide food for visiting ships and castaways (on Three Kings, Great Barrier and Auckland islands, and on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds). Goats were also released as food for prospectors, gold miners, and road and railway workers.
These goats were probably utility animals which could provide both milk and meat. They ultimately formed the basis of the feral goat population around the country.
About 1867 a number of angora goats, which produce mohair fibre, were introduced by the Auckland, Canterbury and Otago acclimatisation societies in an attempt to farm animals with more valuable skins.
Goats were considered clean by Jewish dietary laws and were slaughtered for honoured guests. They were also acceptable for some kinds of sacrifices. On Yom Kippur, the festival of the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen and lots were drawn for them. One was sacrificed and the other was allowed to escape into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the community. The word ‘scapegoat’ originates in this practice.
Normally goats did not move far from where they were first set free until their food supply was almost exhausted. Goats were introduced in some places to help control weeds like blackberry and scrub. They were usually inadequately fenced, so many escaped to cross-breed and establish new feral populations, especially in hill and mountain areas.
In 1920 it was reported that there were about 30,000 goats in the region between Lakes Wānaka and Wakatipu, and four years later that ‘goat shooting is now obtainable in many localities … their distribution is fairly general throughout the Dominion’. 1
By 1947 there were also very large, dense infestations of goats in Marlborough and in western and northern Taranaki.
As goat numbers increased, their effect on native vegetation became obvious. In forests, almost all vegetation within 1–1.3 metres of the ground was either eaten or ringbarked, especially on sunny slopes and at the bushline. In 1929 the State Forest Service annual report stated that goats were second only to deer as destroyers of regenerating forest. Where goat numbers had increased in the drier regions of Marlborough and Otago, they competed directly with sheep for available feed. In 1947, one Central Otago station ran 4,000 sheep and 6,000 wild goats.
The loss of vegetation led to soil deterioration and erosion, especially at higher altitudes. However, possums and deer were also implicated.
One way of controlling feral goats involves a ‘Judas goat’, which is fitted with a transmitting collar and let loose in a wild area. Goats are social creatures, so the animal finds new companions – and then the goat cullers arrive.
At first the control of goats was primarily in the hands of landowners. The status of the animals was complicated by the fact that some farmers fenced them in for weed control, while others allowed goats to roam over farms and forest. The Department of Internal Affairs got funds for goat culling in 1937. Between 1937 and 1946, Internal Affairs shooters killed about 43,000 goats, and a further 73,000 in 1946–47.
Feral goats are wild animals under the Wild Animal Control Act 1977, and it is an offence to release goats into the wild or carry out an act that will cause an increase in the feral population. The Department of Conservation is responsible for goat control in conservation areas.
In 1990, when the demand for goat fibre was high, it was estimated that there were about a million goats on farms in New Zealand – 68% of these animals in the North Island. After fibre and goat prices declined in the early 1990s, goat numbers dropped to about 153,000 (71% in the North Island) in 2002, and have probably fallen further since then. This compares with about 39 million sheep and 4.1 million dairy cows in 2005.
Goats thrive on New Zealand pastures. They are naturally browsers and foragers, rather than close grazers like sheep. Goats can do well on vegetation that is unsuitable for sheep, and can help control weeds. Most goats on New Zealand farms, especially on hill country, are used for weed control.
Early settlers used goats to combat weeds in newly developed pastures. These goats were usually feral animals, rounded up as a herd and fenced onto a problem area. For large bushes of blackberry or gorse there may be 20–30 animals per hectare.
Weeds such as blackberry, thistle and gorse can be controlled and eliminated if goats are tethered or fenced onto areas containing these plants. Fencing can be a challenge, as goats can squeeze between the wires on standard fences. Angora and milking goats are generally less troublesome than other breeds in this respect. Modern electric fences and other fencing techniques can protect areas such as new tree plantations and home gardens. Yard fences should be higher than in traditional sheep yards.
Goats prefer rough pasture and other plants to high-quality clovers. However, if they are expected to produce quality milk or fibre, then a pasture of both grass and clover should be provided. In time goats can manicure pasture into a clover-dominant sward, helping to improve the profitability of sheep or cattle farms.
Goats are often seen tethered on a long rope or chain along a roadside farm boundary, where they graze the rough grass and weeds, and keep the road frontage tidy.
The nutritional value of goat milk has been known for centuries. Because of the size of its molecules, goat milk is more like human milk – it is much more readily digested by babies, and is suitable for a range of dairy products. Goat milk has a different taste from cow milk and is particularly good for making cheese.
The New Zealand dairy goat industry has developed since about 1990. It is centred in the Waikato, where in 2005 there were about 26,000 milking goats. There were about 40,000 throughout New Zealand. Goats may be hand-milked in small numbers, or milked by machine.
Several breeds of goat are used for milking in New Zealand. The Saanen (80% of the total), Alpine and British Alpine, and Toggenburg are all from Switzerland; the Nubian and Anglo-Nubian (which have large Roman noses) are a cross between English goats and goats from Africa and India, and the Sable was developed in New Zealand from the Saanen.
Dairy goats generally produce between 660 and 1,800 litres of milk in a 305-day lactation. On average, a good-quality dairy doe will give at least 2.7 litres per day. Most goat milk is converted to powder, and about 90% is exported to Australia, South Africa, Asia and Europe.
Meat, fibre and pet breeds are not usually milked, and simply produce enough for the kids until weaning.
Mohair is produced from the angora goat, which originated in the Angora district of Türkiye in early biblical times. Mohair is a luxury fibre used widely in clothing and furnishings. New Zealand produces only about 1% of the world’s mohair – most comes from South Africa and the US.
Mohair usually grows in long, lustrous ringlets of around 15 centimetres or longer, and has a fibre diameter of 19–45 microns (millionths of a metre). The diameter varies with the animal’s age – fibre from kids is typically much finer than that from adults. Some mohair is wavy rather than in ringlets.
In New Zealand, good angora goats produce 5–6 kilograms of mohair per year in two shearings. Older animals produce more than young stock.
In 2007 there were about 20,000 angora goats in New Zealand. The angora goat is typically smaller than a feral goat. It frequently produces twins, and has a gentle nature. Both sexes are horned. Angora goat farming in 2007 produced more than double the profit of lamb production – the animals were cheaper than during the goat farming boom of the 1980s.
The Angora region in Türkiye is the source of not just angora goats, but also the angora rabbit, which produces long, silky-soft fibre, shorn in summer. Angora is also the home of the angora cat, which often has one blue eye and one amber eye.
Cashmere is fine, down-like fibre, about 8–18.5 microns in diameter, which is found under the coarse coat of guard hair on several types of goat. Cashmere is a premium animal fibre, prized for its softness and warmth. White is the preferred colour.
About 3,000 tonnes of cashmere fibre is produced worldwide annually, mostly in Mongolia. In South Asia cashmere is called pashmina, which means ‘fine wool’ in Persian. The fibre is harvested by combing the fleece, a very laborious job. In New Zealand and Australia it is harvested by shearing and then separating the cashmere from the guard hair, which can be done by machine. The coarse guard hair is worthless because it cannot be spun or dyed.
Feral goats may yield 50 grams of cashmere per animal annually. Breeding and selecting the best animals has improved the national average to about 200 grams per goat, with the best flocks averaging 300–400 grams. The live weight, fleece weight and fibre diameter tend to increase with an animal’s age.
One problem with New Zealand cashmere farming is the small amount produced. Because of associated uncertainty in fibre price, farmers may not shear every year. However cashmere brings a very high price compared with wool.
Goat down with an average fibre diameter of 19–23 microns was called Cashgora and marketed as a separate product. Prices became very low and little is now sold.
Goat meat has a significant worldwide market. International demand for processed goat meat has outstripped world supply in the last few years, resulting in 2005 prices being about double those in 1990. It has various names, depending on the place and language – for instance, kid-goat meat is called cabrito in Spanish and capretto in Italian. Chevon is a generic name used in some countries, but in New Zealand it is simply called goat meat.
The Boer goat comes from southern Africa and is primarily a meat goat. It is also known as Africander, Afrikaner or South African common goat. Improved Boer goats are large – does weigh more than 50 kilograms, and bucks up to 100 kilograms. Embryos of the breed were first imported from Zimbabwe in 1986, but the animals did not become commercially available until 1993, when they were released from quarantine.
Boer goats have a high fertility and rapid growth rate, and can produce quality carcasses. The Boer is also suited for crossbreeding to improve meat characteristics in feral or weed-control goats, or as a terminal sire (producing animals for sale, not to breed from) over dairy or fibre goats.
The Kiko breed was developed in New Zealand for meat production by crossing feral does with Nubian, Toggenburg and Saanen bucks. The Kiko herd book was closed in 1986 (all breeding animals had to be selected from within the herd). Kiko goats are about twice the weight of feral goats and can produce good amounts of meat under a variety of conditions.
In some climates goats can breed at any time of the year, and this is common in feral goats in New Zealand. However, most goats mate from late summer to late winter. Meat goats are polyestrous, and many does can breed again while nursing a kid. Some farmers let bucks run with the does throughout the year. Does of any breed come into heat about every 20 days, and gestation takes approximately 150 days. Generally, males and females should be separated before 16 weeks of age because fertile matings can occur at this age.
Twins are common, but the overall reproductive rate for feral goats is less than 100% (one per birth per nanny). The rate is higher in farmed herds. Birthing, known as kidding, generally occurs uneventfully with few complications. Milk production varies with the breed, age, quality and diet of the doe.
Goats tend to suffer more problems with their feet than sheep, especially in lush pasture. Like sheep, they are susceptible to internal parasite worms. These are gradually becoming resistant to the drenches used to control them, posing a looming threat to goat farming. An alternative is for farmers to select animals that appear to have resistance or resilience to internal parasites, and to adopt grazing strategies that minimise the intake of parasitic larvae.
The leather from kid goats is very soft and smooth. Kid gloves became a symbol of elegance and gentility in the early 1800s – so the expression ‘to treat with kid gloves’ means to treat someone very gently. In the 1850s, saying that someone wore kid gloves also implied that the person was very dainty, and avoided any real exertion or work.
Angora goats have sheep’s usual problems of dags, footrot and scald, but they appear to be more resistant than sheep to facial eczema. Angora goats do not get milk fever (caused by depressed calcium absorption) or sleepy-sickness (caused by feed shortage before kidding). Goats are more susceptible to trace element deficiencies than sheep and cattle. For example, goitre often occurs in newborn kids whose mothers’ diets have not been supplemented with iodine while pregnant. Also, selenium deficiency in soil may cause the sudden death of previously healthy young kids due to white muscle disease.
All goats need good shelter from rain and wind, especially after shearing, when they are susceptible to hypothermia.
Batten, Garrick. Goat cashmere: producing the finest fibre from New Zealand goats. Invercargill: New Zealand Cashmere Association, 2003.
Batten, Garrick. Simply goats: making more money from your farm with meat goats. Wellington: Meat NZ Goat Council, 2000.
Donne, T. E. The game animals of New Zealand: an account of their introduction, acclimatization, and development. Christchurch, Kiwi, 2000 (originally published 1924).
Thomson, G. M. The naturalisation of plants and animals in New Zealand. London: Cambridge University Press, 1922.
Yerex, David. Goat farming in New Zealand. Wellington: GP Publications, 1991.