The destructive side of goats

This page in:

ImageI 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.


Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000