Breed Profile: Valais Blackneck Goat

The Endangered Goat with the Amazing Coat Favored by the Valais Blackneck Goat Breeder

Breed Profile: Valais Blackneck Goat

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Breed: Valais Blackneck is the English translation of local names in German (Walliser Schwarzhalsziege), French (Chèvre col noir du Valais), and Italian (Vallesana dal collo nero). These names refer to their home in the Swiss canton of Valais and their coloring. The breed is also known as Sattelziege or Halsene (saddle goat), Gletschergeiss (glacier goat), or Vispertalerziege (goat of the Visp Valley, where they are most populous).

Origin: Believed to be native to the Swiss canton of Valais for thousands of years, their ancestors may have arrived with African or Arab migrants around 930 C.E. Equally, they may be descended from an extinct Italian landrace that once inhabited nearby regions. Indeed, the wide Rhone valley and high alpine mountains that dominate the area share a border with northern Italy.

Main location of Valais goat herds in Switzerland and along the border with Italy. Adapted from a Wikimedia Commons map by Alexrk2 CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rescued from Decline after a Long History

History: Switzerland is a mountainous country. As much as a third of farmland resides in the mountains. Goats have been widespread for thousands of years due to their ability to thrive and produce in this difficult environment. Isolated by mountain ranges, communities bred local stock to meet their needs for meat, milk, and pelts. Swiss herders were early pioneers of selective breeding for milk. In addition, they favored certain coat colors and patterns and selected for them over a long period.

valais-herd-in-Swiss-Alps
Goats at Zermatt. Photo credit: Zátonyi Sándor/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the twentieth century, the goat population of Switzerland declined due to the rise in popularity of milking cows and the spread of CAE (caprine arthritis and encephalitis). Some Swiss breeds had already become popular worldwide as milkers. However, the more obscure local breeds became endangered. In the late 1960s, Valais Blackneck numbers dropped below 200 head before they were rescued for conservation.

Conservation Status: The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) lists the breed as at risk worldwide as well as in Switzerland, where they are endangered, but their population maintained. A conservation program stabilized their numbers at around 3300 head during the first decades of this century. This program worked on improving the diversity of the genetic base, reducing inbreeding, and establishing lineage records. In addition, marketing goals included the supply of pelts for bag manufacture.

valais-blackneck-doe-in-alps
Valais Blackneck doe on Belalp mountains in Valais. Photo credit: Joachim Kohler Bremen/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

Finally, the program supports buck keepers to encourage a plentiful supply of unrelated sires to maintain genetic diversity. Nevertheless, in recent years, the registered population has dropped below 3000 with 157 breeding males (as of 2019). There are also small numbers in neighboring areas of Italy (387 head in 2018) managed for small-scale production, and smaller herds in Germany and Austria kept by enthusiasts or for managing weeds and landscapes.

Biodiversity: The breed has unique characteristics differing from other Swiss breeds, but their isolation has led to a high degree of inbreeding.

The Unique Looks of the Valais Blackneck Goat

Description: Medium-sized, stocky, and muscular, they have strong legs for climbing and walking long distances. The neck and head are short with a wide forehead and muzzle. Ears are erect, and horns are long and elegantly curved. Both sexes have beards, long wavy hair, and tufts on the forehead. Coats have become longer in the last hundred years, although shorter coats were more suitable for their traditional role of grazing wild pasture and supplying milk. These longer coats require considerable care from keepers to prevent matting.

buck-and-kid
Buck resting with kid.

Coloring: Black head, neck, forelegs, and forequarters, with white hindquarters, hind legs, and rump. Behind the shoulders, there is a sharp division between the two colors. Rarer colors were considered to be the result of crossbreeding. However, early records reveal that such colors are not new in Valais herds. Goats with fawn/copper or gray necks or all white (known as Capra Sempione) display otherwise the same characteristics. As breeders have concentrated on the Blackneck pattern over the past hundred years, these other colors have been forgotten. The color variants have shorter coats, which is a plus when foraging, as they are less likely to tangle in bushes.

Valais-copper-neck-goat
Valais Copper-necked goat is a rare variant. Photo credit: Susanne Jutzeler/Pixabay.

Height to Withers: Bucks average 32 in. (80 cm), females 30 in. (75 cm).

Weight: Bucks average 145 lb. (65 kg), does 100 lb. (45 kg).

An Ideal Low-Input Goat for the High Alps

Popular Use: Originally a dual-purpose pastoral animal for small-scale farmers, providing meat, milk, and pelts. Although milk production is good, does are mainly bred to suckle kids for meat production.

Productivity: Kids grow quickly and mature early for first kidding at an average of 13 months. Does produce an average of 1.8 kids per year, and give seven years of productive life. Lactation averages 980 lb. (445 kg) milk over 264 days with 3.1% butterfat and 2.9% protein.

Temperament: Lively, agile, and spirited, they are feisty within the herd, but cautious and shy of strangers.

young-goat-in-Alps
Young Valais Blackneck on Belalp mountains in Valais. Photo credit: Joachim Kohler Bremen/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

Adaptability: Due to their long history in the high mountains, Valais goats are thrifty and sure-footed. Indeed, they readily scale heights and cover long distances, free-range grazing in the Alps in dry conditions. In addition, they are attentive mothers with a good milk supply. However, they fare less well in damp climates and confinement, needing space to assert their hierarchy and a fibrous diet.

Quote: “Valais Blackneck goats are beautiful, proud and spirited. Some even claim that they have the same tough minds as the people of their homeland… Seeing a large herd of these unusually-colored animals is an experience that is not to be forgotten.” ProSpecieRara (Swiss foundation for heritage plant and animal genetic diversity).

Sources:

  • FAO DAD-IS
  • Glowatzki-Mullis, M.L., Muntwyler, J., Bäumle, E., and Gaillard, C. 2008. Genetic diversity measures of Swiss goat breeds as decision-making support for conservation policy. Small Ruminant Research, 74(1-3), 202–211.
  • Porter, V., Alderson, L., Hall, S.J. and Sponenberg, D.P. 2016. Mason’s World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding. CABI
  • ProSpecieRara
  • Upper Valais Goat Breeding Association.
  • Wikimedia Commons photos reused under licenses: CC BY-SA 3.0 and CC BY-SA 4.0 where stated.

Originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Does, kids, and buck in their natural environment.

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