A doe can, for instance, convert a wide range of vegetation into nutritious milk, utilising a wider variety of plants than a sheep or a cow. And given the right diet the dairy goat can provide a tenth of her body weight in milk every day.
The goat can survive in challenging climates where the larger domestic animal cannot and is a lot less hard on land like ours that can all too often be wet or boggy.
It is a provider of milk, manure and fibre and a reliable source of meat. A goat’s hide is prized for bodhráns and strings for musical instruments and the intestine provides a type of catgut, still used for internal human surgical sutures. In some countries the goat is also used for driving and packing purposes.
It’s a pretty impressive list of attributes. But despite its many sterling qualities the goat was often known as the poor man’s cow, by inference, a second best class of an animal kept by those who were too poor to do better.
But the goat has had the last laugh after all. As times have changed, goat’s cheese milk and yoghurt has become a firm — and pricey — favourite of the gourmand.
Goat’s milk and products made from it are also recognised for their health giving properties and as a useful alternative for those with lactose intolerance and skin allergies.
Angora and pashmina producing goats are valued for the exquisite quality of their coats, which fetch a high price among weavers.
Considered to be a “clean” animal by Jewish dietary laws, goats were considered acceptable for sacrifice. The goat’s fascinating connections with our own history also explain the origins of the word “scapegoat”. On Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen. One was sacrificed, the other allowed to escape into the wilderness, symbolically carrying with it the sins of the community. Unfortunately for the poor goat however, its public relations profile hasn’t always been the best.
For many years, Christian folk tradition in Europe associated Satan with the imagery of a goat. Our own Puck Fair draws on pagan elements that relate to the fertility connected with the majestic buck that is chosen annually.
I’ve always loved goats’ cheeses. And one of the nicest things about them is that they are often produced by small, artisan farmers who have a fondness for their goats, may well have given them names and take great pleasure in producing high quality cheeses, milks and yoghurts.
So, when I noticed a new goat’s cheese in our local SuperValu, I read the label with interest. The Saoirse range is produced not a million miles away in Ballingeary by Bawnowlaig Pedigree Dairy Goats, it is pasteurised, not homogenised, and has no additives or preservatives.
But being a pig in the parlour sort of person when it comes to livestock, it was the animal welfare specifications on the label that impressed me most — free range, fed on non-GM rations, they drink well water, and are straw bedded at night. At this point, I was almost tempted to check in myself. I decided to have a chat with producer Sean Ó Briain, a man who adds a whole new meaning to the phrase “small farmer”.
>>“Definitely. I couldn’t get any pleasure out of it if my animals were not being properly looked after. Goats are fantastic animals, curious, clever and they can make great companions.”
>>“Oh a very long time, for about 30 years in fact. It started with my father who came back to our farm one day with a doe and her kid. That was it for me. I was hooked. And as time went on, I became more interested in genetics, pedigrees, breeding and so forth.”
>>“It was some years ago. At first, it was just to neighbours who knew about my goats. It was pretty much on a farm gate basis back then. I started experimenting with cheeses about three or four years ago though, and that was when it became more than a hobby.”
>>“No that’s absolutely right. Just four dairy goats. But I have spent a very long time in breeding and I’ve only used the best males. I’ve frequently gone to the UK to find them. But that in itself has proved to be a problem since we can’t bring them back directly into Ireland on the ferry because of some obscure legislation we are trying to sort out.”
>>“We have to sail from Scotland to Northern Ireland then drive all the way down to West Cork. As you can imagine, that’s far from ideal, to say nothing of very costly, and it’s one of the main reasons why the herd is so small. But because we’ve bred so carefully over the years and because the animal welfare is a priority, we have happy and highly productive goats.”
>>“Definitely, come the spring. We’ve started off in a small way and the response has been terrific. But I intend to keep the same standards of welfare and quality that really matters to me. The DVI tested us recently. A spot check and the inspector couldn’t believe how well the goats looked. Even the males just stood there and let her get on with it.”