Breed Profile: Old Irish Goats
Ireland's Endangered Rare Goat Breed
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Breed: Old Irish goats are the national landrace of Ireland.
Origin: Settlers brought cold weather goats to Ireland in the Neolithic age, approximately 5,000 years ago. This line of goats had slowly adapted, over many generations, to the cold, arid conditions of northern Europe during the slow migration of nomads. As people set up homesteads in Ireland, this hardy and economical breed gradually adjusted, over thousands of years, to Ireland’s landscape and damp climate, and acquired resistance to local diseases. This makes Old Irish goats ideal for families living in harsh conditions with meager land.
History: The Old Irish goat was the only breed until about 1900, providing many products to impoverished households. In the nineteenth century, they numbered a quarter of a million, and many were exported to England. When the potato famine struck, goats proved invaluable, and villages with access to goats and fish were more likely to survive. At the beginning of the twentieth century, improved dairy goat types were imported and cross-bred with local stock to increase milk yields.
Today, in Ireland, most goats have British and Swiss origin. Intensification of production has marginalized Old Irish goats in favor of higher-yielding goat breeds. Despite the fact that they are celebrated in folklore, song and art, there are only a few hundred Old Irish goats left. These are believed to be hidden among feral goat herds roaming heaths and national parks. Even here, their gene pool has been diluted through cross-breeding with commercial dairy types. When feral populations are controlled, indiscriminate culls further eradicate native animals. Dwindling biodiversity threatens the loss of unique DNA, which allows goats to thrive in cold, harsh and damp conditions, and specifically those of the Irish landscape.
Modern farming methods can inadvertently bring about the kind of conditions that led to the famine, when reliance on a single variety of potato resulted in massive crop failure due to its susceptibility to blight. The Old Irish Goat Society, formed in 2006, recognizes this danger and appeals to volunteers to help them identify genuine Old Irish goats among the feral herds. The society works with the government and heritage associations to gain official protection and rare breed status.
To prove their genetic inheritance, DNA tests were required. Samples from feral and domestic herds were compared to museum samples. Scientists analyzed goat bones and skin that had been preserved from times before improved breed imports. DNA from feral goats in Mulranny revealed descent from historic samples of Irish and Old British breeds, most of which are now extinct, and landrace Scandinavian breeds. Mulranny goat DNA is quite distinct from Mediterranean, Swiss and improved breeds.
The Old Irish Goat Society’s aim is to preserve the landrace in the wild as an existing standard, through collaboration with national parks and landscape management schemes. It also encourages domestication without improvement, as Old Irish goats already make ideal homestead animals, being productive in sparse conditions. The society relies on volunteers and donations from bodies such as the County Mayo Foundation and The American Ireland Fund.
Conservation Status: Near extinction: only a few hundred individuals left. They represent a unique reserve of locally-adapted DNA. According to ecological researcher Rosa García, “Goat genetic heritage is seriously threatened … especially for remote areas which hold an outstanding reservoir of livestock diversity adapted to the local conditions….”
Standard Description: The coat is long, coarse, and oily with an abundant cashmere undercoat. The face is dished, and the body small and deep, with a large rumen to digest poor forage. Legs are short and strong. Distinctly pricked ears are small to resist frostbite, while a long muzzle warms the air before entering the lungs. They normally have horns and beards in both sexes, but no wattles. Bucks have long beards and ostentatious tufts on cheeks and forehead, and impressive outward-curving horns. They have slowly adapted these traits in harmony with the local environment. This makes them low-maintenance, hardy, and resilient.
“The Old Irish Goat has a distinct regal image, with its long beard, oversized sideburns, flamboyant coif, long coat, and of course … it is ostentatiously adorned with a crown of impressive horns,” enthuses Seán Carolan, chairman of Mulranny Environmental Group and Old Irish Goat Society.
Coloring: A variety of colors and patterns of gray, black, white, and rich to pale browns.
Temperament: They are described as exceptionally intelligent, charismatic, and gentle. They quickly adapt to domestic settings.
Popular use: Before the twentieth century, rural families kept landrace goats for milk, meat, fats, hide, horn and fiber. Now their descendants exist in feral herds, and could be used for conservation grazing and tourism. Their unique genetic makeup embodies a food security resource. They have huge potential as backyard goats, producing nutritious milk of high fat content, due to their economic use of a wide variety of forage.
It isn’t really Old Irish if: there are wattles, large ears, long legs, short hair or other signs of dairy conformation. Other feral populations’ DNA revealed a closer relationship to foreign improved breeds, and demonstrate how any mix of goats left to cross-breed spontaneously in harsh conditions will eventually produce small, hairy descendants, reverting to a wild type like their Bezoar ancestor.
Quotes: “There is a very compelling and urgent need to preserve the Old Irish Goat breed as a genetic and cultural resource. The Old Irish Goat is the ancient breed of the nation and the symbol of its past.
“They’re a rare breed likely to become extinct very, very quickly in the near future.” Raymond Werner, historian and researcher, Old Irish Goat Society and British Feral Goat Research Group, 2009.
“The Irish goat in the process of time has developed a coat which acts as a natural thatch in the moist humid atmosphere of its native districts, and to graft Nubian or Swiss blood into this breed does not add to its beauty, and, to our mind, impairs its usefulness. The Irish goat, we maintain, is the best we have for the purpose, and it should be kept pure in type.” Walter Paget, British illustrator, 1918.
Sources: Old Irish Goat Society
— Cassidy, L.M., et al. 2017. Capturing goats: documenting two hundred years of mitochondrial DNA diversity among goat populations from Britain and Ireland. Biology Letters, 13(3), p. 20160876.
— Rosa García, R., et al. 2012. Goat grazing, its interactions with other herbivores and biodiversity conservation issues.” Small Ruminant Research 107.2, pp. 49–64.
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Lead Photo by Ray Werner.
All photographs by kind permission of the Old Irish Goat Society.
Originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.