Permaculture Pastoring

My experience with Goats …

Well, I’m sad to say (at least in some ways) that I’m getting rid of my goats. I must admit however that ever since I’ve had them the relationship with them has been one of love and hate. Especially with Jeronimo, the male, who I found once to be a cute and benign smelling creature and now such an odious little character who seems to have a particular knack for chewing the tops off my newly planted fruit trees (see a fine example of his work in the pic below).  In some ways they are such beautiful creatures when they are out grazing peacefully and doing their thing, and yet at the same time they are such a force of destruction and when they find a certain something that suits their palate, particularly of the small tree variety that you would really not want for them to touch then it can be quite a stomach turning event to see them having devoured what you’ve worked so hard to nurture. For someone who is intent on reforesting they definitely present a great challenge to deal with.

One of Jeronimo’s fine pieces of work. Annihilated Almond.

I have tried so many ways to keep them. At first they were such unwieldy creatures for me to deal with. I would put a lead on each of them and take them out to pasture. Once out to pasture I would let them go but keep the leads on them (the long lead of about 3-4 metres would trail them and make it easier to catch them again if they happen to run off). I would take them out for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening. My initial motivation for getting them came after the fire that I had in February and I had been advised by many (Portuguese) that they would be the best animals to keep the scrub down. I was keen on keeping my boundary areas clean in case a fire broke out again and I thought they would work particularly well in the flat field that runs along the eastern boundary where the prevailing winds come from. It is across this area where the fire in February passed. Before the fire this area was primarily overgrown with ‘Silvas’ (blackberries) which were beginning to grow back pretty quick, as they do, and goats are particularly known for eating their way through that, so I designated this field as the primary area where I wanted the goats to do their ‘clean up’ thing. Now, one of the initial problems that I had with this is that they were housed about 400 metres from this area and getting them to that area was a bit of a nightmare. My initial attempt involved having each of the goats on a leash and attempt to lead them out to this area. The goats did not like being lead, especially Luci who resisted all the time. It was a constant fight. I tried all kinds of things to get them to move such as trying to entice them with food or scare them from behind etc but such a difficult thing when they are on leads also and worse when each of them decides to go in different directions. It drove me mad. I remember getting so angry sometimes, especially with Luci. Sometimes she would just sit or lie down in a way of saying ‘f*** you, I’m not going anywhere!’. She would resist with all her might and I would fight her tooth and nail with no remorse. Each goat has given me problems and the major problem with respects to finding a solution with each of them was to overcome my anger, which was not easy for me, they had definitely been sent to test me. I remember losing my temper with them many times.I did eventually, every day, get them into the field and when I did then I was more or less able to calmly direct them into areas where they wouldn’t damage small trees, however sometimes it was difficult. Once they found the willow there was no way to keep them off it. They would go crazy for it and they would not let up. If I scared them too much they would run off uncontrollably somewhere and if I didn’t scare them enough they would just sit there and not take notice.

Mobile goat bases – Cement filled car tyres with hook secured in the centre.
An example above of a clip that wasn’t strong enough!

I then tried to make life easier for myself by tethering them with a stake and then after that created some mobile bases that I could attach them to. The bases were just care tyres filled with cement and a hook secured into the centre of them where I could attach a cable. They were heavy and the goats couldn’t move them but I could put them on their side and roll them around to different locations as required. The problem that I found with tethering is that it needed to be done in a completely flat area with no obstructions, because even with the smallest of obstructions, even a clump of ferns, they would somehow seem to wrap the rope around that clump and get stuck, therefore necessitating a constant going back every few hours to check on them to make sure they hadn’t gotten themselves into strife. Other problems with this were that ironically somehow they would find ways of escaping. I’m still baffled as to how it could have happened sometimes and at one point was certain that some fiendish farmer from nearby was coming and setting them loose. It baffled me as to how they could easily work themselves into a complete knot around the smallest of things some times and yet other times just mysteriously escape. Thankfully I guess, the majority of the time they were able to stay on the tethers however eventually I got to the point where I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. It felt a bit cruel keeping them tethered and in summer their could be times during the day when the sun was quite hot and there woudn’t be enough shade to keep them cool and then added to that whenever I’d go back I’d find the water bucket tipped over!!! I eventually gave up on taking them out to pasture.

Happy days out in the pasture (around June when I first got them).

I felt like I had reached a comfortable and manageable situation when I decided to keep them more or less permamently in the animal house with the chickens. The thing I liked about it is that I could just go out for an hour or two every day and cut all the food they needed for the whole day, drop it into their food containers for them and just let them eat it during the course of the day. The other thing that I liked about this also is that it provided me with motivation to selectively clear areas of brambles and shrubs that required cleaning away. I guess this would be referred to as stacking functions; clearing areas of land while seperating out valuable fodder for the goats that then became converted into valuable manure. As it got colder and wetter more green grass became available so I was picking more grass for them. I found that it worked quite well having the chickens in there also, as whatever green grass the goats didn’t eat it could be thrown to the chickens. Same with all the food scraps and rations that were given to the goats. It all was used somehow and what wasn’t used would build up as mulch on the floor of the animal house. I would constantly gather it into the corner where it created an on the fly compost pile containing a good mix of organic matter mixed with goat and chicken waste. In a few months I could build up quite a few wheelbarrows of the stuff and put it down on the terraces around trees for mulch and soil building. It seemed like a reasonable solution for a time, but it was still a bit cruel. They are not really designed to be living in a confined space for long period.

Luci posing proudly alongside her wonderful soil building contribution.

With the onset of an illness I was unable to find the energy to go out and pick food for them every day (combined with the fact that it was a wet period with many rainy days) and decided it would be easier to just open the door and let them out to graze a couple of hours in the morning and evening as I had done so before. I just didn’t have the energy to go out and cut food for them and figured that atleast I could just put some warm / weather proof clothes on and not have to do much other than supervise. This time round it seemed different. My approach had changed. I didn’t put a leash on them and I wouldn’t try and herd them into any particular area. I would just open the door and set them free, let them go and feed wherever they felt they wanted to while at the same time being vigilant that they didn’t get too close to anything that I didn’t want them to such as newly planted trees etc. I found that I was able to gently guide them into areas by just positioning myself correctly in relation to them and they would often move away from me rather than towards me. It was a case of me playing the vigilant shepherd, making sure that they didn’t devour anything they shouldn’t. I observed how they’d seem to develop a taste for certain areas and would create a kind of route that they would normally follow more or less every time I took them out. I found also that after about an hour and a half to two hours they would usually be ready to make their way back to their house. It feels to me like shepherding them vigilantly like this is probably the most natural way of dealing with the goats. It requires however that you have the time to be present and vigilant every day! It needs to be treated like a daily meditation. The goats will need your 100% attention at all times. If you take your attention off them for a moment they will run amok. The wonderful thing about shepherding the goats is that although you are still required to be vigilant and present it is also a means by which you can let go of everything else that is going on and just spend some time in contemplation. I think that realistically if one had the time and the patience, or if the task could be shared out with others, this could be one of the best ways to keep goats and also manage your landscape of scrub that would otherwise dry up in summer and become a fire hazard. I believe that it would be important however to have a balanced number of goats. There are some local Portuguese shepherds who like manage around 100 to 150 goats at a time, but for me this seems completely absurd and unsustainable. The motivation for this of course is not sustainability, only financial viability. It is not something that works in balance with nature, not as I see it anyway. This would not occur in a natural setting. I think of goats as similar to deer, They would probably hang out in small packs and nothing of that magnitude and they would be culled by natural predators which unfortunately in Portugal is no longer the case. Portugal did have wolves (Lobo Iberico) in the mountains of the Estrela’s (as well as many other animals however I don’t know which of them would have been a predator to goats also).

Who’s afraid of the big bad Lobo Iberico?

The other ways that I did not try due to lack of finances was fencing. I believe that the ideal, if you didn’t have time to shepherd them, would be to have boundary fencing all around the property with an inner boundary fence to create a corridor around the complete perimetre of the property atleast 10 metres wide where they could constantly migrate around within while still being enclosed or could be split into smaller paddocks for rotational grazing/browsing. This would serve as a great tool for keeping scrub down in the boundary areas and therefore creating a good fire break. Of course any small trees within the belt area would have to be protected. The other less costly option would be mobile fencing, either electric or as they have here what they call ‘cancelas’ (mobile gates), each made of metal about 2 metres long with spikes in the bottom to go into the ground and with rings on the ends so that can be joined together and create small enclosures, effectively this is like creating a kind of goat tractor (except with no shelter from rain). I did consider creating an actual proper enclosed goat tractor (effectively a mobile home for goats) also but then it would have to stay isolated in a certain flat area as getting it out of one flat area and into another flat area would require going over some rocky areas and that could be a problem. If I did get goats again then I’d be more likely like to do it when:a) I have the finances to implement either mobile goat fencing solution or a boundary fencing solution.

b) Plenty of people around that would be willing to either share the load or at least look after them in case I need to go away for any reason.

I must say I would definitely try and think things through really well before deciding whether to take on goats again and look at whether the function I want them for can’t be substituted by sheep instead. Perhaps I’d be more inclined to try with sheep next time. Sheep seem much more well behaved. Something I’ve seen more of around here is sheep just placidly and peacefully following along behind the shepherd as he cooly walks them around to a field or wherever to graze.  That’s the difference between sheep and goats I guess. Goats are unwieldy and ‘capricious’! Sheep are … well, sheep!

I did have a novel (and wonderfully cruel) idea though recently with respects to taming goats. I guess you could call it ‘slingshot shepherding’? …

The other day I found a slingshot in the barn. Must have been from the previous owner. I had this idea that perhaps I could use it when shepherding the goats. Of course, I’ll be getting rid of them soon so I won’t get to try it out but I’ve noticed how Jeronimo does seem to hestitate a little as he approaches a tree and I command him with a stern ‘No!’. It usually requires me walking forward a little and pressuring him with a bit of body language also but it can be enough for him to understand that the tree shouldn’t be touched. Of course sometimes it’s just too tasty for him and he won’t resist it. In that case it usually requires moving up close and scaring him away with the stick. I figure though that he does understand something of my intention, even if he doesn’t take notice all the time. I wonder how well this technique could be coupled with the use of this slingshot I found. I could make myself loads of seed balls or maybe even just have loads of acorns and chestnuts as ‘ammunition’ and then if they got too close to a tree and not obey the ‘No!’ command then I could take shooting practice (just their behinds of course) to (hopefully) deter them and give them a better understanding of what I’m trying to tell them. I’d say this technique would only work if you have 3 or 4 goats maximum. Any more than that could result in a shoot out! Anyway, I’m not sure if I like this idea simply because of the fact that I’ve got some childish sadistic streak or whether it’s because I’d like to see them take more responsibility in the reforestation effort. Perhaps a bit of both.

Anyhow, they’re going (bless them), next time perhaps I’ll try sheep, for now I need a break!

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