Pondering Goats

Billy’s Colony: stand-up comedian or half-hearted pun?

Having ranted and raved about the lowly, near vermin status held by wild goats in Galloway, the time has come for me to put my money where my mouth is. An expanding and prosperous tribe of goats was recently culled in the forest above my house, and I happened to meet the stalker as he was coming off the hill after doing the deed. A short exchange ensued, and I came away with two very fresh goats for the game larder.

Time will tell how I get on with butchering, processing and cooking with this meat, but it’s interesting to note the general level of contempt most people hold for goat on the table. Perhaps it’s deserved – it’s still too soon for me to pronounce judgement one way or the other, but these animals are ancient remnants from a time when goat was a popular staple. Compare the British reluctance to eat goat meat with an insatiable demand for the stuff overseas – an Indian friend in Dumfries informs me that lamb is a poor alternative when it comes to curries and stews.

At the same time, I can’t quite resist looking back to a time when wild goats were widespread across the country. Galloway has a particularly strong tradition of goats, but even a Century ago there were herds of wild goats living in the margins of almost every upland area in Britain. In trying to achieve a glimpse of the countryside as it must have been, goats provide an interesting barometer for man’s relationship with the “natural” world.

The mere existence of wild goats represents a demonstrable agricultural waste. What does it say about the efficiency of traditional agriculture when medieval goatherds could lose their livestock and never bother to reclaim it? In time, these “feral” animals would grow to become a collective burden on agricultural communities, and yet generations of farmers failed to either round them up and sell them or simply eliminate them altogether. Surely it’s no wonder that wildlife prospered in a world where moderately large and destructive herbivores were allowed to come and go, not just as an occasional raider but as a co-occupant of the countryside for hundreds of years.

“Their [goats’] continued existence in the Twenty First Century is testament less to their hardiness and more to man’s forbearance”

Galloway goats are believed to have been “at large” in the hills since at least the days of Robert the Bruce – their continued existence in the Twenty First Century is testament less to their hardiness and more to man’s forbearance. After a while, the goats must have developed a kind of heritage factor which carried them through days of conflict when wholesale slaughter might have beckoned. Perhaps if your father and his father before him had tolerated the odd goat on the hill, it wasn’t for you to see them off. You might shoot one or two now and again to keep the numbers down, but you would never take steps to erase them altogether. In this way and without any formal endorsement, goats have somehow tagged along on our coat tails for an astonishingly long time – quite a feat for animals which have few active friends and are widely abhorred.

On the national stage, goats declined when land use intensified or changed altogether. In Galloway, the Forestry Commission simply obliterated thousands of goats when the hills were planted, annihilating distinctive herds which had been part of the landscape for generations. It seems odd today, but nobody batted an eyelid at this destruction – whatever logic had protected these animals for six hundred years seemed to vanish. Some of the same processes occurred with red deer, but stags have a cultural appeal which goats sorely lack, and many gradually recolonised and became forest animals.

In the context of modern farming, is now almost laughable to suggest that farmers would tolerate a herd of wild goats on their silage fields during these cold February days. Think of the “damage” – the glaring inefficiency of it! This mindset (which has arisen in a single generation) is at the root of so many of the most crucial problems we now face in the countryside – it is the same loss of tolerance for scrub woodland, wet fields and gorse and it goes beyond the obvious motivation to satisfy grants and funding – it’s a fundamental shift in mindset.

All this is just thinking aloud. It would be good to develop these ideas into something more substantial, as I can’t help feeling that the existence and significance of wild goats has been systematically overlooked in our national (and natural) consciousness. As always, more to come on this subject, particularly once I’ve had a chance to (literally) digest my first attempt on goat cookery.



One thought on “Pondering Goats

  1. I think I am right in saying that the goats you refer to are mostly feral rather than wild goats and flooded the upland areas at the time of the clearances and industrialization when the cotters/crofters left their homes and were either driven out or left to find a sustainable life elsewhere. There is a movement in Ireland to safeguard these original goats which are being killed off at a great rate but also being diluted by out crossing with released unwanted pet imported “improved ” foreign goats (Saanan, Swiss Alpine etc). They were the life blood of rural families for centuries and it would be as great a shame genetically to lose them as the Longhorn or the Gloucester Old Spot.

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