Old Irish goats are on their last legs without State aid

Native breeds face extinction without funding to protect genetic and survival issues

The old Irish Goat is in danger of dying out
The old Irish Goat is in danger of dying out

Ken Whelan

The continuing neglect of our native goat breed is costing Irish agriculture niche market opportunities and depriving the environment of natural allies, a leading advocate for the animals has warned.

In the week that the famous Puck Fair gets underway in Killorglin in Kerry, Sean Carolan questions how long our native goat species is likely to survive in our commercially driven agricultural regime.

"We spend millions preserving old buildings and preserving the biodiversity of our countryside, but virtually nothing on the preservation of our native goat breeds or the diminishing number of other rare animal breeds," says Mr Carolan, who manages the Old Irish Goat Society centre in Mulranny, Co Mayo.

"We have to invest more in preserving our indigenous breeds."

The centre, whose operations are partly State-funded, is the go-to place for anyone interested in the past, present and future of the feral old Irish goat.

And that future looks bleak. There are an estimated 350-500 old Irish goats left, mainly in Mayo and Kerry.

The old Irish goat has largely been lost sight of as it is extinct in domestication and survives only as a feral animal that is often camouflaged in herds of mixed and mongrel type.

Known historically as 'the poor man's cow', it was by virtue of its hardiness a crucial component in our farming past.

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For centuries, the old Irish goat was the only breed of goat to be found in Ireland. It developed over time to become a highly adapted local breed, physically matched to our climate and style of animal husbandry.

It was a dependable and productive breed which required little attention and provided milk, meat, skin and fibre on meagre and marginal land.

Most of the 'Irish' goats now used for commercial enterprises, such as goats' cheese, are of British or Swiss lineage, and while these foreign breeds thrive across the Irish countryside, the native Irish goat is going into serious decline.

Mr Carolan believes the old Irish goat is an undervalued genetic resource which, if allowed to thrive, could make a contribution to our environmental obligations and the general biodiversity of the countryside.

The native species, with its abundant appetite for mountainside vegetation, can clear hilly land rapidly and prevent wildfires.

The Old Irish Goat Society wants the State to set up a viable fund to address the genetic and survival issues which arise from the current malaise in which the native goat breed and other declining native breeds find themselves.

But Mr Carolan accepts it will be an uphill battle to convince the State authorities of the argument.

The society estimates that a €1m fund is required to create a genetic database of the breed.

In a report submitted for the Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-21, the society said there was a limited awareness at official level - and among the general public - of the ongoing decline in our native goat population.

They proposed that greater priority should be given to the depopulation issue, beginning with a serious attempt to research the genetic profile of these breeds as a precursor to saving them.

Mr Carolan says the State needs to recognise the significant cultural value of rare breeds.

The alternative is the eventual disappearance of the old Irish goat and many other endangered Irish farm animal breeds.


Feral herds led by the females

* The old Irish goat was Ireland’s only goat breed until around 1900.

* It is closely related to the native goat breeds of England, Scotland and Wales.

* It was in England that the breed was first called the ‘Irish goat’.

* A thick cashmere undercoat under its long outer coat helps to keep the goat warm in cold weather.

* It is possible to tell the age of an old Irish goat by counting its horn rings.

* Unlike the modern breeds of dairy goat, the old Irish goat can be found in a variety of colours and colour patterns.

* Large numbers were once imported into England and Scotland annually, being called the ‘harbingers of spring’ as the drovers arrived in each town and village.

* Feral herds of old Irish goats are led by a female, the males forming bachelor herds for much of the year.

* In domestication, the breed could give up to 200 gallons of milk a year.

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