Breed Profile: Old English Goat

The British Primitive Goat Found Ideal for the Homestead

Breed Profile: Old English Goat

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BREED: The Old English goat stems from a project to rebuild the ancient landrace. Foundation stock consists of rare native descendants still in domestication and feral British primitive goats, such as the Cheviot goat.

ORIGIN: Landrace goats in the British Isles appear to be descended from the goats of ancient herders. These migrated along the Danube to northern Europe and the north Atlantic coastal regions. They gradually settled in Britain about 4000 years ago.

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History of the Old English Goat

Originally goats were herded by pastoralists in a semi-nomadic system and valued for milk, meat, skin, hair, and bones. In the Middle Ages, villages or manors ran an open field system, in which tenants or serfs tended strips of land for crops. This was surrounded by woodland and scrubland, which goats could efficiently browse. As sheep became the popular dairy animal, goats were relegated to the uncultivable borders, often herded by a child. Compared to sheep, they were found more difficult to manage and lost favor.

The Inclosure Acts of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries changed the farming system. The laws converted common land to private residences, bounded by hedges, with enclosed fields and ornamental gardens. Landowners despised goats due to their reputation for breaking into and destroying gardens or stripping trees in hunting grounds. It took until the nineteenth century for low-income families to take up goat-keeping on a subsistence basis. During this period, goats persisted in a transhumant (seasonally nomadic) system in the hills of Cornwall (southeast England) and Northumberland (English–Scottish border).

“Deal Castle” by Thomas Hearne (1775) pictures an English milch goat aboard a ship.

The Spread British Goats and Their Loss of Popularity

Although goats were generally unpopular in England, several sea captains, including James Cook, found them invaluable milkers for sea voyages (1768-80), due to their hardiness and adaptability. At least one of these was a “milch goat” of English type. Similarly, English and Spanish goats arrived in the Americas with colonists. Here, they existed as scrub goats and were never recognized as members of a breed. In the mid-1800s, they were replaced in the North by imported dairy goats. Consequently, Old English goats became extinct in North America. They are now represented at living museums, such as Plimoth Patuxet, by the Arapawa goat, which may have partly descended from the English landrace.

Goats did not regain popularity in Great Britain until 1858. However, it was imported breeds that took the spotlight: Maltese, Alpine, French, and Nubian types. In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, sea traders had brought goats on board from ports in Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and India. As the railroad network built up in the 1840s, exotic goats became widespread and were frequently crossed with the local landrace. English goats became progressively crossbred and diversified. Those favored in the show ring were of a sleeker line with a shorter coat. The British Goat Society (formed in 1879) registered this new type as the “English goat.” Officials considered the original rugged, shaggy form a common scrub goat. They sought to upgrade all remaining rural herds by pegging out a stud on the village green to serve villagers’ does.

An Old English doe showing typical colors and patterns. Photo courtesy of the Old English Goat Society (OEGS).

Attempts to Recover the Landrace

In 1920, the first English Goat Breeders’ Association (EGBA) attempted to save the original landrace. Its breeding program consisted of local goats of the old type and feral goats from the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. This first effort sadly dwindled when the main breeders died. The last of the herds was dispersed by 1954 and the breed considered extinct in domestication.

However, a few lines continued relatively undiluted in remote homesteads and in feral populations in the hills of Cornwall, Northumberland, Wales, Scotland, and in Bagot Park, Staffordshire. In 1920, an article was published with a photograph of Emerald, a doe typical of the ancient type. This and earlier paintings helped to record the type of the lost landrace.

“A goat in a landscape, cattle beyond” by Thomas Sidney Cooper (1845).

In the 1970s, homesteaders seeking the ideal smallholder goat started a movement to reconstitute the old landrace. They collected goats with striped legs, dorsal stripes, outwardly curved horns, and/or fawn coats in an attempt to restore the breed from these characteristics. This resulted in offspring with the wild-type coloring that they were seeking, but many were undoubtedly still descended from imported stock.

Enthusiasts reformed the EGBA in 1978, and members sought to develop their base stock according to their preferences. Some aimed for the BGS show goat of the 1870s, while others sought to develop dairy potential through crossbreeding with dairy goats, particularly British Saanen. A third group aimed to restore the original multi-purpose smallholder goat, closer to the original landrace. They chose EGBA registered goats that more closely resembled Emerald and historical records. These they then crossed with Cheviot goats. To protect and promote the older-type goat, they formed a new society in 2004, the Old English Goat Society (OEGS).

“A goat by the shore, Margate” by Thomas Sidney Cooper (1843)
Photo of a modern Old English doe courtesy of OEGS.

Conservation and Biodiversity

CONSERVATION STATUS: About 100 females (overall 176 head) are registered with OEGS, kept by under 50 breeders. This makes the breed extremely rare and critically endangered. In 2021, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust added Old English to its Priority Watchlist for conservation. With such a small population, breeders focus on maintaining genetic diversity and avoiding inbreeding. The OEGS occasionally welcomes new animals from the Cheviot hills that meet type criteria after careful inspection. These can thereby contribute useful native genes to registered breeding stock. Software has been developed for pedigree registration that can help breeders to find unrelated sires to complement their lines.

BIODIVERSITY: A characteristic type and adaptive traits hint at a long evolution to fit their native environment. Few genetic samples have been taken to date. Those analyzed suggest a close relationship with historic samples taken from mounted specimens from all over the British Isles. Currently, a wider range of samples is being collected for genetic analysis. Feral goats still exist in Wales and Scotland. Many of these could contribute useful variations in the ancient gene pool. That is if they can avoid the threat of indiscriminate hunting and be brought back into domestication.


Characteristics of the Old English Goat

DESCRIPTION: A small, stocky goat with deep, broad chest, round belly, and short, sturdy legs. The facial profile is concave, ears small and pricked, and wattles are absent. Horns sweep up and outwards (Spanish-style/dorcas) or up and back (ibex-style/scimitar). A minority are polled. The coat ranges from short and thick to long and shaggy, often with fringes along spine, hindquarters, and along the belly. Cashmere grows thick during winter.

COLORING: Variable shades of gray and/or brown, often with white or black markings, or pied. The closely related Bagot goat has a black head, neck, and shoulders, clearly defined from white hind-quarters.

A typical mature buck. Photo courtesy of OEGS.

HEIGHT TO WITHERS: Adult does 24–28 in. (61–71 cm); bucks 26–30 in. (66–76 cm).

POPULAR USE: Dual-purpose, particularly suited to outdoor living on homesteads.

PRODUCTIVITY: The current focus is on protection rather than production. However, breeders find that does lactate steadily until fall, giving several pints a day. In the 1920s, Emerald was recorded as giving 667 imperial pints (around 800 US pints/379 liters) over five months. After this, she dried off gradually. Her last known litter was twins at age 16.

Does browsing natural meadow. Photo courtesy of OEGS.

ADAPTABILITY: Naturally adapted to the damp British climate, they thrive on native forage and outdoor living. They need very little input or protection. As the OEGS testifies, “They will eat a wide range of food and are not deterred from foraging by poor weather. They will drink water at the temperature of their surroundings.”

QUOTE: “These are the original smallholder’s goat. For centuries they were kept by households across the UK to provide for the family thanks to their fantastic ability to convert native flora to milk for next to no cost. Very hardy and low input, they should be an attractive option for smallholders with an interest in self-sufficiency, traditional farming, or regenerative agriculture.” Adam Short, Breed Registrar, OEGS.


  • Old English Goat Society
  • Werner, R., 2018. Background to the Origin and History of the Cheviot Landrace Goat. The Cheviot Landrace Goat Research and Preservation Society.
  • Werner R., 2012. Emerald: ‘A Good Type of the English Goat’ as Bred by the First English Goat Breeders’ Association.
  • The Livestock Conservancy
  • New Zealand Arapawa Goat Association
  • Amills, M., Capote, J., and Tosser‐Klopp, G., 2017. Goat domestication and breeding: a jigsaw of historical, biological and molecular data with missing pieces. Animal Genetics, 48(6), 631–644.
  • Cassidy, L.M., Teasdale, M.D., Carolan, S., Enright, R., Werner, R., Bradley, D.G., Finlay, E.K., and Mattiangeli, V., 2017. Capturing goats: documenting two hundred years of mitochondrial DNA diversity among goat populations from Britain and Ireland. Biology Letters, 13(3), 20160876.

Photographs courtesy of the Old English Goat Society.

Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Cheviot goats feral in Northumberland, a remnant of the original British landrace goat.

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