In keeping with time-honoured tradition, the wild, male goat was given the title King Puck and ‘presided’ over all the antics, drinking, trading and general bonhomie at the ancient fair of the same name, which ended in Killorglin last night.
But is the eight-year-old specimen a member of a vanishing species? Farmer Frank Joy, who for over 20 years has captured a goat for Puck Fair, believes wild goats are endangered. He has been finding it more difficult to find a suitable puck and says goats are disappearing from the mountains. He suspects people may be killing goats for food. Friends at Fair Head, near Ballycastle, Co Antrim, have told Frank of a similar trend in their area.
Goats have been in Ireland for at least 4,000 years and were a common sight in the countryside for millennia. Sometimes known as ‘the poor man’s cow’, they were highly regarded in earlier societies. At one stage in the 1920’s, we were estimated to have 260,000, but many were exported to England. Goats were kept for their milk, meat, hair and hides. Some escaped, or were released, and then formed wild, or feral, populations. Most feral herds are in remote mountainous areas, including Connemara, Kerry, the Burren, Glendalough, Mulranny and Waterford.
The Old Irish Goat still survives in the Burren, but is now believed to constitute only around 10% of the area’s goat population. Steps are being taken to conserve the purity of that strain and some of the better animals have been separated from the herd for breeding purposes.
Nowadays, however, most goats in Ireland are again domesticated. We currently have around 200 dairy goat farmers, with some huge herds of up to 750 animals. Goat farming is expanding to meet an increasing demand for goat’s milk for cheese, yoghurt, ice cream and milk consumption. The health-giving properties of the milk, especially for people experiencing difficulty in digesting fat in cow’s milk, are being constantly lauded. It’s also said to be good for those with asthma and eczema.
Teagasc advises on setting up goat enterprises and there are courses for potential goat farmers. Goats are seen as clean, friendly animals that can produce high quality milk.
But, with a focus on goat farming, is the wild goat being forgotten? Frank Joy argues this is so and feels it’s time for action. “It’s time they were given legal protection. These goats are classed as vermin, which is totally wrong,” he says.