The destructive side of goats


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I hate goats. I’ll admit that I do love the feel of a good cashmere scarf or pullover, and have delighted in sensual cashmere socks I’ve been given. I am also partial to goat curry, goat kebabs, roast goat, and goat in a good wine sauce – though I lose my appetite on seeing a pop-eyed goat’s head staring at me out of a bowl of boiled goat bits at some of the meals I’m offered while on mission. And I do enjoy some nice goat cheese with a crisp cracker and celery.

Still, I hate goats.

My first encounter with the evil side of goats was in the Haleakala Crater National Park in Hawaii, during a trip that was part of a travel grant I received as a teenager. The focus of my visit was the population of Hawaiian Geese Branta sandwichensis, which had been reestablished from a captive-bred population in Slimbridge, UK.

I spent a couple of days with some rough but engaging park rangers who were engaged in a goat cull using good weapons and helicopters to rid the park of the demons. I then began to appreciate first hand the damage these agile and voracious herbivores could have on ecosystems of which they were not part. Feral goats have also been eradicated on parts of the Galapagos.

In 2003, the World Bank published a ‘sources of growth’ study on cashmere (pdf) in Mongolia, which has a very heavy dependence on the export of this, gold, and copper. This makes the country’s economy particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices and natural disasters. It was a solid report by my economist colleagues, but when I reviewed a draft I noted that the report only considered cashmere as a commodity and didn’t recognize that inside every cashmere sweater is a goat with a voracious appetite. As a result the report’s title was changed (to ‘From Goats to Coats’) and a section was introduced on the damage that large numbers of agile goats with broad diets and sharp little hooves have on sensitive biological areas.

Goats have a much more catholic diet than sheep or cattle and will eat many shrubs and trees that are unpalatable to those species. In high numbers, and during drought, they can significantly impact the vegetation. The problem with their hooves is that they cut into the ‘cryptobiotic crust’, which forms in the top layer of many arid soils. This living, soil-binding crust comprises interwoven strands of blue-green bacteria or cyanobacteria, together with lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and bacteria. These knit the soil particles together and prevent them from being lost to wind or water. If the crust is cut, the intense spring winds or summer storms can get access to the loose soil beneath, and erosion begins. The blue-green algae also fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil and so influence the nutrient levels of soils and consequently the vegetation. Destroy the crust and it can take decades to recover.

One of my new project sites is around Lake Aibi in far western Xinjiang, China, in a viciously windy gap next to the Kazakhstan border. With only about 90 millimeters of rain per year it’s a pretty arid area, and it has suffered from the depredations of goats and diversion of water for cotton agriculture. I have put a film about the preparation of the project on the World Bank’s YouTube channel – and I will follow this up with more on this blog – and goats feature as a bête noire (or, more appropriately bête blanche).

Goats would sell their souls for a mouthful of poplar leaves. 
In low numbers I guess one could stomach goats, but where they are herded there always seem to be too many and they limit the natural growth of vegetation. Goats can persist longer than other livestock under drought conditions and will thus have a greater impact on the food supply. They may also limit the amount of water available to native herbivores such as gazelles, though I’m not sure of any empirical evidence for this. To make ends meet, a herder family needs 100-or-so animals to make a decent living, but in a village we visited within the nature reserve almost no one has enough goats. The nature reserve is being degraded and saddest of all the large, old poplar Populus euphratica trees are having their roots roasted alive because the goats are stripping the soil surface of the protective layer of leaf litter. Goats would sell their souls for a mouthful of poplar leaves. 

Stall-feeding goats and collecting fodder for them is an option, but I’d guess if I were a herder I’d find restricting goats’ movements in this way as difficult as the idea of putting a Labrador into a cage and not letting it out for walks. But some means of reducing or eliminating goats in sensitive areas really must be found. In the case of Lake Aibi this is something we will be working on.



Cleaner Greener China
January 07, 2009


An humorous start to a very important topic.

Goats are a real issue when they are in large populations and not kept in pins.

Last year we showed a movie about the Loess Plateau recovery in Beijing and Shanghai, and it lessons are sure to be important for your projects as well.


Nigel Ewels
January 12, 2009

Really liked your article Tony. Being from NZ/Australia goats are often seen as a pest down here as well with equally destructive impacts on fragile environments, especially during droughts. They are hard to get rid of as well although it did mean my elder brother in NZ always had something to shoot at, although cooking goat well is a skill and most of the meat tended to go to the dogs of various friends farms.

In defense of the goat though, some farmers in the more temperate parts of Australia and in NZ have been able to utilise the goats open mindedness about what it eats to advantage. Large areas of farmland in these parts are infested with various introduced weeds like brambles, gorse, blackberries and so on which effectively reduce productivity. While goats have long been known to munch on these delicacies some farmers are applying methods of stock control to concentrate the goat herds on infested patches to ensure intensive feeding. The beauty is they actually prefer these weeds over the grass or native shrubs. They can also get into some difficult and remote areas and provide a cost effective alternative to spraying or mechanical removal. I've seen results in NZ and Victoria where gullies and pasture over run with gorse or blackberry have been cleared and opened up to grazing or re-planting of native trees and shrubs. So in some circumstances the goat can do good service when its unique charatceristics are guided in the right direction...and those cashmere scarves, so smooth.



Tony Whitten
January 30, 2009

Dear Nigel

Thanks for the comment.

I've indeed read about some of the goat exploitation and even beneficial ways they have been used in NZ/Oz, and it shows that the key is management. At the right place, at the right time, at the right times of year, and for the right duration they can be made a positive force. I would love to help the herders and policy makers I engage with get to the point where that can happen.

February 20, 2009

This is being done by some farmers in the Philippines. They cut-and-carry forages to the goats in pens which have to be raised off the ground so that the manure can drop to the floor to reduce intestinal worm problems. In fact this is one of the main reasons for raising them in pens - to reduce worm problems. When the goats roam around eating the vegetation they can end up eating the worm eggs/larvae. The life cycle of the worms can be broken by raising the goats in pens. Also, the goats expend less energy in pens so if fed sufficiently well and watered they can grow faster, healthier and be more reproductive.
I don't know if this is relevant to drier/colder regions... I am not a goat specialist.

Tony Whitten
March 08, 2009

Dear Eddie

I think the idea of pens works well in places where it is easy to gather forage to give to the goats. In places I have seen this done in China and Indonesia, the vegetation is pretty lush and collecting enough each day is no problem. In the arid and cold areas of Mongolia and western China, this isn't really an option because the forage is so dispersed and such poor quality.