Farm Ireland

Sunday 21 January 2018

This is one breed of goat that won't be playing puck

A juvenile long-eared owl spotted in West Wicklow recently. It is believed up to three of these young birds of prey hatched close to Dunlavin near tillage fields where there is an abundance of mice and other small rodents. Photo: Siobhan English
A juvenile long-eared owl spotted in West Wicklow recently. It is believed up to three of these young birds of prey hatched close to Dunlavin near tillage fields where there is an abundance of mice and other small rodents. Photo: Siobhan English
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I really enjoy a visit from overseas visitors. As well as catching up on personal news, it's interesting to talk to people you know that are living in other parts of the world about their daily issues and to hear their views on the various social, political and climactic concerns which have become increasingly global.

Last week, my American cousin Denise Reed and her family, husband Rex and children, Liam (9) and Clare (4) stayed with us for a couple of nights. My late mother Rita was a sister of Denise's dad Joe Magner, who has lived in the States since the 1970s.

Denise and Rex are lucky to live on a couple of acres in a built up part of Maryland where they keep various fowl and other small domesticated animals, primarily as pets and sometimes to exhibit, trade and eat.

Dinner table talk topics ranged from the GM versus organic debate to the farm safety camp run which Liam had just attended (sounds like a great idea).

But what really grabbed our attention was the mention of the latest addition to their animal roster, a pair of Tennessee Fainting goats.

At first, I thought they must be joking. How could these animals exist and why would anyone want them?

While most goats are known as smart, playful animals which spend their time climbing and eating a wide range of vegetation, these are known for a very different trait: stiffening up and appearing to faint when they get a shock.

I still found it hard to believe so there was nothing for it only to go online where there are various videos of somebody running up to a group of these goats with an open umbrella and they all keel over in unison.

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The breed - and it is an official breed with its own set of recognised standards - is not abnormally prone to fright but carries a hereditary gene for myotonia so when the goat is frightened or even excited, this causes a temporary stiffening of muscles which causes them to fall over on their side.

Despite the breed title, they never actually faint or lose consciousness. It also seems there is no pain involved and, when their muscles relax after about 10 seconds, they get up and on their way.

Younger goats are more prone to fall over while older animals learn to cope better and may spread their legs or lean against something when they are startled or run away in an awkward stiff-legged shuffle.

While myotonia congenita itself likely predates recorded history, the encouragement of the trait in goats can be dated back to the early 1880s to a farmer named John Tinsley in Marshall County, Tennessee.

However, while the condition occurs naturally in the genetic makeup of an animal, fainting goats only exist as a breed because people want them.

In the wild, if a predator was to approach a fainting goat, it would freeze up and dot, dot, dot. Though Rex said he has heard of fainting goats actually being used in the past as a sort of sacrificial guard animal for sheep flocks.

It's the polar opposite of Charles Darwin's Natural Selection so, in his language, would be unnatural selection.

From the time when humans began to domesticate animals, they have always been bred selectively, to encourage either particular behavioural or physical traits.

Fainting goats are no different and they are bred for two main reasons.

Like other goats, they are often raised for food.

They have more muscle due to their muscle tensing condition so there is a higher meat to bone ratio. Also, because of their condition, they are less likely to jump or climb so are easier to manage.

They are also often kept as pets. Some people apparently raise them for the uniqueness of their fainting spells, others because they are easy to keep, others still because they are small in size and have a friendly disposition which make them attractive companion animals.

The number of fainting goats in the world is believed to have grown over the past 20 years to about 10,000. They are bred throughout the United States where the breed is administered by the International Fainting Goat Association (IFGA).

Usually an organisation's logo shows whatever is being promoted/represented in an appealing way.

So, for example, a dairy livestock one might show a nicely marked black and white cow with a big well shaped udder standing up straight.

The IFGA logo is no different; it is of a stoutish, cute, black and white goat … lying on its back, legs straight up. I kid you not!

Indeed, one of the things breeders need to supply when registering a fainting goat is, "a photo of your fainting goat in the down position".

As the proverb goes, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".


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