Breed Profile: Girgentana Goat
Unique and Valuable Traits Preserved in Sicily’s Rare Goat Breeds
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BREED: The Girgentana goat is named for Girgenti, the former name of Agrigento in Sicily, where the goats are mainly raised.
ORIGIN: Residing in the province of Agrigento, southwest Sicily, since time immemorial, their origin remains a mystery. Zoologists have considered the wild markhor of central Asia as an ancestor due to its spiraling horns. Goats and their wild ancestor can breed with markhor, ibex, and tur, and domestic goats have inherited some genes found in other goat species. However, the markhor’s twist is in the opposite direction to the Girgentana’s and those of other domestic goats with twisted horns. A more likely source for twisted horns in domestic goats is gradual selection within certain Asian herds according to herders’ preference or belief that twisted horns confer other benefits. This trait suggests an Asian origin for the breed, possibly introduced to the island by Greek colonists from 750 BCE or by Arabs from 827 CE.
HISTORY: In the 1920–30s, urban herders took goats door to door and to market to supply milk fresh from the teat to villagers. This mild-flavored milk was mainly given to infants and the elderly. However, this tradition was eradicated in the thirties by new laws prohibiting urban goat farming for sanitary reasons. Consequently, goat-keeping earned an unfavorable image and was pushed out to the hills and coastline.
In 1958, there were about 37,000 head in these areas. But by the 1980s, they were on the verge of extinction. During the 1960–70s, the push for increased production led to a preference for imported dairy goats, such as Saanen, and it became easier to find breeding males of such breeds.
Saving the Girgentana Goat
Ideas changed in the nineties, as imported goats brought new diseases and did not yield significantly more cheese than local landraces, which proved hardier. There is a growing interest in establishing sustainable systems of high-quality artisan dairy products from heritage breeds, especially fresh and mature cheeses transformed on the farm for direct sale. Although Girgentana are prolific and produce well, they face competition from more populous breeds with similar productivity. Marketing under the Slow Food Presidium label helps farmers to preserve the breed and valorize their products.
Goats are now raised on small/medium family farms on nearby pastures during the day, returning to the barn at night and during winter, where they are fed dried local hay and forage.
CONSERVATION STATUS: A herdbook was set up in 1976 and 30,000 head recorded in 1983. However, ten years later, the population dropped to about 524. In 2001, only 252 goats had milk records. Low numbers and considerable inbreeding threaten the survival of a breed. Accordingly, the University of Palermo set up a 12-year experimental program in 1990 to revive the breed. It aimed at countering inbreeding and preventing loss of important trait variants. The FAO listed the breed as endangered in 2007. Records show 1316 head in 2004 and 1546 in 2019, including 95 breeding males within 19 herds of around 80 head each. In addition, a small population is conserved in Germany.
Goats of Unique Value
BIODIVERSITY: Girgentana goats are genetically distinct from neighboring breeds, probably due to their Asian origin and recent isolation of herds. Some breed members share the common maternal lineages found in European goats, while others have revealed a previously undiscovered lineage, similar to that found in various species of wild goat. This may indicate interbreeding with wild goats in their early history, or simply the discovery of a new ancestor. In addition, genetic combinations share a similarity with Indian and Chinese goats.
Interestingly, genes for casein show varied and rare types. Many breed members have casein genes for longer coagulation time and firmer curd, ideal for cheese making, with the bonus of efficient protein utilization, thus lowering their environmental impact. Other lines possess genes for mild flavor suitable for drinking milk.
Despite these unique and unusual genetic features, inbreeding within herds has reduced diversity and variants are split between populations. A likely cause is the isolation of many herds whose males were rarely exchanged. Current breeding goals are to maintain productive traits while maximizing genetic diversity.
Potential for Dairy and Sustainable Farming
POPULAR USE: Milk, cheese, and landscape maintenance, providing income from hilly/mountainous areas.
PRODUCTIVITY: Lactation yield varies widely from 1.1–9.9 lb. (0.5–4.5 kg), averaging 3 lb. (1.4 kg), per day, and up to 119 U.S. gallons (450 liters) per year. Fat and protein content also vary, averaging 4.3% and 3.7% respectively. When making cheese from goats’ milk, properties of native Italian goats’ milk were compared to Saanen milk. Local breeds’ milk was richer in proteins, forming curd earlier. Girgentana goat cheese formed the firmest curd.
Does produce for 6–8 years and are highly fertile and prolific, often having twins or triplets (average 1.8 young per kidding). Doelings first kid at about 15 months old and kids are kept on the dam for 50 days. Kid meat is especially valued at Easter and Christmas, so kidding season runs from November to March.
Girgentana Goat Qualities
DESCRIPTION: Small to medium in size with slender build and a coarse, medium-long coat. Facial profile is straight or slightly concave with a tufted brow and erect or horizontal ears. Both sexes have beards, wattles, and corkscrew horns, which rise vertically, almost touching at the base. Horns can reach 28 in. (70 cm) long in the male.
COLORING: Mainly white with brown speckling around head and throat and sometimes on the withers.
HEIGHT TO WITHERS: Adult bucks average 33 in. (85 cm); does 31 in. (80 cm).
WEIGHT: Bucks up to 143 lb. (65 kg); does 101 lb. (46 kg).
TEMPERAMENT: Lively, intelligent, companionable, and fairly docile.
ADAPTABILITY: Resilient and undemanding, they forage well on difficult terrain, but horns are a disadvantage in wooded areas. Genes for scrapie resistance are common, and more prevalent than in commercial breeds. Moreover, their unique traits and dairy value are an asset to sustainable production in changeable times.
QUOTES: “… these populations, historically farmed in Sicily, possess valuable traits such as disease resistance, high fertility, and adaptation to harsh conditions, representing an important reservoir of diversity that may turn out useful to face the upcoming climate change.” Salvatore Mastrangelo, University of Palmero.
“… the extinction of the Girgentana breed may result in the loss of important genotypes in domestic goats.” M. T. Sardina, University of Palmero.
Originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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Lead photo by vieleineinerhuelle/Pixabay.