Old Irish Goats
Currently unrecognised as a breed, but genetic testing may point to their being the basis of a breed and INRBS is involved in these efforts.
Because the Old Irish Goat largely survives as a feral population and has not been studied to the same extent as domesticated breeds of livestock and in light of the adulteration of the feral population through the introduction of commercial breeds into the wild there is no breed standard for the breed. Indeed the breed has not gained official recognition as an indigenous breed. However, Irish goats are described as being different from the goats traditionally found in England in being generally black and white, with horns that rise straight and parallel from the brow and then turn outwards and a little back at the top in billies while remaining short and pointed in the nannies. It is also described as having longer legs than the English variant and when farmed was reputedly not as prolific in yield but was renowned for the quality of its milk.
One of Ireland’s oldest fairs, Puck Fair, held annually in Killorglin from 10th-12th August, is characterised by the crowning of a specially captured Puck goat by the “Queen of Puck”, a young girl from one of the local primary schools. The Puck is then raised on a platform, presiding over his “subjects” for the duration of the fair. At the end of the fair the Puck is released back onto the hills.
Goats were among the first species of livestock to be domesticated and have been farmed in Ireland since Neolithic times. It was in the early modern period, from the late 17th century, that goats assumed a greater importance on Irish farms than previously to the point that a few goats were part of the stock of a typical small farm, reaching a high point in numbers of 282,000 in the agricultural census of 1891 before dropping to a low of 9,000 in 1980. The subsequent increase in numbers of goats is a result of the importation of non-native commercial breeds. Up to the outbreak of the Great War, large numbers of Irish goats were imported and distributed through the hill districts of Britain in nomadic droves from which the milkers were sold as they kidded. Interest in goats declined as the quality of hill sheep improved and whey drinking, which had been considered especially health-giving, declined. As less attention was devoted to the care and management of goats they took to the hills to form feral herds. In 18th century Dublin the flesh of the male kid was highly prized and favoured over lamb and to meet this demand kids were reared on the mountains of South Dublin before being suckled by ewes and fed with cow’s milk.
From earliest times goats were used to convert woodland and scrub into grassland suitable for sheep. Also, from Neolithic times they were used in transhumance with cattle, being transferred into the uplands for the Summer before being brought back down to the lowlands for Winter. The main environmental impact of goats today is due to feral herds inhabiting more remote areas such as the Burren and other uplands, where their browsing exerts a considerable but selective control over invasion of scrub. The character and high species diversity of the Burren grasslands owes much to the browsing of goats. Together with the hardy outwintered cattle they kept the upland grazings clear of all woody growth and rough weedy herbaceous vegetation. The goat is an incomparable browser; it will clear land of brambles, briars, furze, ivy, and heather and is particularly fond of such weeds as thistles, nettles and docks. Changes in the breed and management of Winter stock along with the wholesale removal of goats are the root cause of the rapid encroachment of scrub over parts of the Burren in recent decades, this process has its roots in the rounding up of vast numbers of feral goats during the second world war to be exported as food to Britain.
Following the mechanical removal of furze it has been found that goats browsing the young regrowth is an effective means of preventing the recolonising of reclaimed land by furze and is obviously a far more environmentally sound methodology than the use of chemical herbicides. In order to reduce flowering and seeding of furze the most useful periods for browsing are April to July and September to November. It has to be noted though that adequate fencing is a prerequisite to prevent the straying of the goats beyond the area where their presence is desired.
The Irish Native and Rare Breeds Society would like to assist anyone interested in participating in a breeding programme based on a management plan with a view to breeding a viable population of Old Irish Goats in captivity so that an officially mandated pedigree register can be established and maintained by a breed society on the basis of best breeding practice. The INRBS will therefore assist in establishing connections between individuals and agencies with a view to providing homes for any feral goats that may be captured and in full compliance with the regulatory framework for placing feral individuals into domestication. The greatest challenges to the Old Irish Goat in the wild result from the indiscriminate culling of goats, sometimes including whole herds for a variety of reasons, protection of commercial forestry plantations, feral goat meat being treated as wild game as well as the danger posed to the genetic integrity of the native type of goat due to the release of non-native breeds into the wild which then crossbreed with the native goats. It is hoped that any goats captured will be DNA tested so that a breeding profile of the individuals can be used to breed a domestic population of pure animals with the required amount of distinct bloodlines to avoid the pitfalls of inbreeding.
Update: A Preservation Committee has been formed with the aim of capturing feral goats, having first received official permission to do so with a view of testing as many goats across Ireland that appear to adhere to The Old Irish type as possible and fascilitating collaborative exchanges between current owners of goats and people wishing to procure goats as participants in a breeding programme for Old Irish Goats. Anyone interested in participating in a breeding up programme for Old Irish Goats can contact the INRBS at firstname.lastname@example.org