Feral Goats: Their Lives and Loves
How and Where do Goats Live in the Wild?
Feral goats live wild in many habitats due to widespread release of domestic animals over the last 250 years. Sailors, such as Captain Cook, released dual-purpose goats onto Pacific islands, New Zealand, and Australia. In other areas, such as in Britain and France, local breeds were abandoned in the 20th century when more productive goats became popular. Due to their high adaptability, hardy goats can thrive in the wild environment and become numerous. Their lives have been documented in various locations, such as Saturna Island (BC), several Pacific islands, the British Isles, New Zealand, and Australia.
Although for many residents these animals constitute a voracious pest, for others they are a well-loved cultural feature, accessible to tourism and emblematic of the region.
A Valuable Source of Knowledge
Conservation studies have revealed how feral goats choose to live. This knowledge is invaluable to those of us who keep their tame cousins, so that we can understand their behavior and manage our herds optimally. Feral populations all over the world have a number of features in common. We understand these as behavioral preferences that enable goat society to run at its smoothest.
Feral Goat Social Life
Goats establish permanent night camps where the whole herd aggregates at night. However, males and females segregate outside of the breeding season.
Females bond for longer and groups normally consist of mothers, daughters, and sisters. A study of two different feral populations found cliques of around twelve females plus several does who remained on the periphery, some of which formed a new group at a later date. Within the core and on the periphery, bonded individuals were found. During the day goats disperse over the landscape to forage in small subgroups of generally two to four bonded individuals. Males group loosely outside of the breeding season. During the rut, males may be seen wandering alone until they find a female group.
Emulation in the Farmyard
We can respect these social preferences by keeping related females together wherever possible, and running a separate buck/wether herd out of season. I have also found my goats prefer a permanent base from which they will wander out to rotation pastures as a group during the day.
Ranges of female herds tend to be reasonably small, while those of males cover areas occupied by several female groups. Within the range goats move quickly between food sources, as their diet requires variety and their natural habit is to browse rather than graze. We can meet goats’ natural feeding needs by supplying a variety of high-fiber forage and rotating their pastures.
Maintaining Peace through Hierarchy
Goats use ritualized combat to establish a hierarchy which enables them to decide who gets priority access to resources. Smaller, younger animals give way to the strongest. Where size difference is not immediately apparent, they test one another’s strength through head-to-head clashing and locking horns. In the farmyard, they need space to work out their hierarchy, and subordinates needs room to avoid higher ranking individuals at the feed rack.
Feral Goat Reproduction
In the wild, females choose their mate by submitting only to the male they find most attractive. This is generally a dominant mature buck of about five years old who takes time to court her before mating. Smaller and younger males are normally chased away.
To give birth, does prefer to withdraw from company and kid in private seclusion. After cleaning and feeding, she will leave her kids in hiding for several hours while she feeds and then returns to suckle them. After a few days, kids are strong enough to follow their mother and will start to play with other kids. As they are progressively weaned over several months, they form tighter peer groups with kids their own age.
Females stay with their mothers up to the next birth, and may regroup with them after. Young males, however, disperse when they mature sexually. We can understand the importance of maternal and family bonds, especially for female goats, and incorporate family life into our management practice.
You can read more about feral goat social life in my book Goat Behavior: A Collection of Articles.
A Valuable Source of Genes
Feral goats are well adapted to the local landscape and highly resistant to parasites and disease. In the modern age, we tend to prefer commercially developed breeds that have been improved for production. However, these often lack the local immunity that heritage breeds have, and we have to manage them more carefully. Feral goats then constitute a reserve of these hardy traits that are missing from many of our production animals. In this respect alone, they are worthy of protection, as they represent a source of biodiversity that we will need as the climate changes. Old Irish goats, Arapawa goats and San Clemente goats have been found to represent unique genetic identities. Many other unimproved breeds may likewise hold missing pieces of ancient goat varieties.
The Dark Side of Feral Life
Although in most areas they reside they are culturally appreciated by tourists and some residents, many people who live among feral goats consider them troublesome pests. They have been known to ravage gardens, wear down walls, increase erosion, and endanger local plant species and wildlife habitats. Landscape conservationists have attempted to control feral populations through culls or through fencing off sensitive areas and driving out goats. As the hunting of feral goats is unrestricted in most areas, trophy hunters and trip organizers have turned to stalking goat, to the horror of goat lovers and those who value the presence of the wild herds.
Scandal in countries such as Wales, UK, have made many hunting facilitators go underground. A recent conservation paper concludes that trophy hunting is a “morally inappropriate” method of population control. Other methods are available and sport hunting should be a last resort. As sportsmen wish to retain a sustained supply of game, their aims can be at odds with conservationists, who are trying to limit goat damage (for an example, see Hawaiian ibex goats). Most reserves appoint their own skilled marksmen and discourage recreational hunting, but lack of legal protection limits control. Indiscriminate culls weaken the population and drive down the diversity of ancient landraces. Rare breed goats, such as British primitives, that only survive in feral populations face extinction.
Protection, Conservation, and Reutilization
In Ireland, Old Irish goats have been identified and moved to a sanctuary where they can be managed. Feral goats can be tamed and find their place in society as multipurpose backyard animals, as was their historic purpose, or as weed eating goats for landscape management.
In France and the UK, feral goats have been used to rebuild heritage breeds, and the semen of the French landrace, Chèvre des Fossés, has been stored in a cryobank to improve genetic diversity.
When their browsing habits are understood and managed, they can effectively control weeds that spread fire. Fencing has been used to protect vulnerable plants and goats are employed to remove invasive species.
Planning can ensure that installations do not cut feral populations off from resources such as water and shelter, so that goats do not come into conflict with human facilities.
Tourism still loves these animals, as they are beautiful and easy to spot. Their usefulness to mankind still needs to be fully appreciated, but we can choose to care and protect the feral goat for their future and ours.
Feral goats in Cromwell, New Zealand:
Batavia, C., Nelson, M.P., Darimont, C.T., Paquet, P.C., Ripple, W.J. and Wallach, A.D., 2018. The elephant (head) in the room: A critical look at trophy hunting. Conservation Letters, p. e12565.
O’Brien, P.H., 1988. Feral goat social organization: a review and comparative analysis. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 21(3), pp. 209-221.
Shank, Chris C. 1972. Some aspects of social behaviour in a population of feral goats (Capra hircus L.), Zeitschrift Für Tierpsychologie, 30, pp. 488–528
Stanley, Christina R. and Dunbar, R.I.M. 2013. Consistent social structure and optimal clique size revealed by social network analysis of feral goats, Capra hircus. Animal Behaviour, 85, pp. 771–79
Goats have roamed Snowdonia for 10,000 years; now they face secret cull. November 13, 2006. The Guardian.
“Disgust” at firm which offered chance to shoot Welsh mountain goats in Snowdonia. July 30, 2017. The Daily Post.
Lead photo: Cheviot goat (UK) by Tom Mason/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
Originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.