Today goats are still an important element in the simple economy of various tribes on the African continent, in the Middle East and parts of Asia, and of peasant farming communities in many Third World countries.
As a result they may well, by now, be the most widespread of all farm livestock, though the pig may also be a contender.
Goats have also been introduced into developed countries such as South Africa, the USA, Australia and Europe. Through modern breeding techniques, highly productive, specialised milking breeds have been developed; many of the famous cheeses of Europe can be made only from goat’s milk.
Meat is probably the major contribution made by goats to Man’s needs, but it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics as to total consumption.
It seems clear that more people eat goat meat than sheep meat, but considerably more sheep meat is consumed.
This emphasises the fact that sheep meat is preferred in the wealthier Christian countries, and goat meat in the poorer non-Christian countries.
Very little goat meat goes into world trade because it is consumed in the countries in which it is produced; New Zealand and Australia are the only significant exporters of goat meat, mainly because they consume practically none of it themselves.
World production of goat skins is estimated to run to about 350,000 tonnes, the output of about 200 million goats annually.
Goat fibers have always been harvested by peasant communities from their goats, but it has been a by-product from their milk and meat operations. The only countries producing cashmere — until Australia and New Zealand came on the scene in recent years — were China, Iran and Afghanistan.
Mohair production — the name is derived from the Arabic term `mukhayar’ and is produced by Angora goats, named after the original title of the city of Ankara — began commercially in South Africa and the USA about a century ago.
The other major source, and the oldest, is Turkey. Goats are related to the ibex and the tahr, which is found in the Southern Alps, but as it belongs to another genera it cannot be crossed with them.
Goats are ruminants, preferring coarser herbiage than sheep and cattle. But Angora goats are farmed principally in South Africa, Turkey and the USA, in areas with an annual rainfall of less than 500mm. This had led to the conclusion that they are not suited to non-arid conditions, but it might have been equally valid to conclude that they are farmed in those areas because they are the only domestic livestock that can cope with the available feed.
In many countries goats are crucial to the survival of millions of small subsistence farmers. They are agile, and so readily moved to available grazing, they are prolific and, most importantly, they produce meat, milk, skins and fiber.
Although they are herded on flat, dry plains in many countries, in their natural state goats appear to prefer hill country, and are adept climbers of steep rocky slopes.
They do not form large herds, but tend to remain in smaller extended families. They communicate by snorts, foot-stamping and bleating.
Even in a farm situation, kids that were separated from their mothers at weaning will, two years later, link up with them again in the family group. Males tend to form bachelor groups which break up only when the mating season approaches. Whereas sheep flee from an enemy, goats tend to turn and face an approaching predator.
But the difference between the two is more basic than that, as sheep and goats do not have the same number of chromosomes, sure proof that they are very distinct species. Nevertheless crosses — termed either ‘geeps’ or ‘shoats’ — have been reported, but are apparently not viable.
There is one characteristic which the goat shares with most other animals — it is adaptable. It is a human conceit to define an animal and expect it to conform thereafter.
In fact the goat in New Zealand is slightly different from the goat found elsewhere, and the goat living on a farm is slightly different from a goat living in the bush. It will be important for farmers to appreciate how goats adapt as they become more accustomed to the conditions on our farms …. in fact on each individual farm.