You’ve got to be kidding
Why goats are the new dogs.
No, we weren’t deliberating over a cavapoochon, a cockapoo, or a schnoodle. Our toss up was mini lamancha, Nigerian dwarf or pygmy. Maybe even a miniature silky fainting?
We’re talking goats. That’s right: goats. Because goats are very much in vogue at the moment – you can pay to take them for a walk (buttercups.org.uk), go to one of the many goat yoga classes popping up across the country. You can even try pygmy goat Pilates (pilatesattic.co.uk). The number of people owning them as pets is on the rise, particularly miniature breeds; and although there are no official figure on ownership in the UK, the numbers are thought to be around 25,000. From January to August this year, the Pygmy Goat Club (pygmygoatclub.org) saw its biggest growth in membership since 2009, by 25 per cent to 400 pet goat owners.
Goats, it seems, are ‘the new dogs’. Like dogs, they love company – yes, yours, not just other goats’ – and are super-responsive to humans, which makes them great fun to be around. Curious, cute, cuddly. Even science agrees: two studies by Queen Mary University of London found that goats are as clever as their canine counterparts and can read facial cues, even distinguishing between smiley and frowny faces.
They are relatively easy to keep, too. You’ll need to clean them out regularly and feed and water them twice a day, but, if during the week you don’t have time for more than a quick cuddle, they’ll keep each other company until such time as you do.
They are even good for your mental health – Lainey Morse, who originally kickstarted the whole craze for goat yoga on her farm in Oregon in 2016, has credited her goats with helping get her through Sjörgen’s syndrome, an immune-system disorder. ‘It’s really hard to be sad and depressed when you have baby goats jumping around you,’ she says. Unless you’re planning to breed them and house a virile male, which give off a potent musk, they don’t smell, either.
Goats came on to our radar when our then eight-year-old daughter fell in love with a friend’s full-sized varieties. Two years and an awful lot of research later, her passion remained undimmed and we had to concede that this wasn’t just a fad. With around a quarter of an acre of outside space going spare, we gave in. But as with dogs, size and breed were the first considerations. While space wasn’t an issue, potential escape certainly was, and we baulked at ‘jumpy’ breeds, such as the Nigerian dwarf. Instead, we plumped for pygmies, as they would give us all the personality and fun we were after, without necessarily being able to clear a 6ft fence. At maturity, they stand between 16 and 23 inches tall, which is the size of a large dog.
As for how many we needed to buy, we were quickly informed that goats are herd animals and get depressed on their own. I was nervous about having a pair – what if something happened to one and the other was left on its own? My husband agreed to three.
To buy a goat, first you need to find a breeder. My first call, to the British Goat Society (britishgoatsociety.com), was friendly but fruitless – they don’t recommend breeders. They did, however, suggest I join Facebook’s Goaty Friends page, where my ‘looking for recommendations’ post threw up Blackwater Alpaca & Pygmy Goats (blackwateralpacas.co.uk), owned by pygmy obsessives Claire and Glenn. The couple originally ran an alpaca-trekking business from their rural smallholding in Essex, and added pygmies to the farm a few years ago, then started breeding. They now have a herd of nearly 80, some of which they take out to visit care-home residents and local schools. I was told there were no baby goats available due to high demand, but instead asked if I wanted to join a waiting list of around six months. But a few weeks later, I got the call. ‘We’ve got four babies for you,’ said Claire. I didn’t hesitate. ‘We’ll take them all!’
A goat-keeping course is a good idea to ensure you really know what you’re getting into. We signed up to one run by Claire and Glenn – our fellow students were a group of schoolteachers planning to keep goats for their pupils, another family, and a retired couple. There was a lot to take in. Fencing: a minimum of 4ft high, with no holes or means of escape. Housing: we needed something with enough room for the children to play and pet them even in bad weather, and that we could secure overnight. Husbandry: trimming their hooves every four to six weeks is just the start... Entertainment (or what Claire calls ‘enrichment’): goats love salt licks, scratching posts, and things to climb and jump off. And of course, food: a basic diet of hay and clean drinking water should be supplemented with 2-8oz goat mix every day.
There will be some physical graft, too. Think erecting a secure fence will be the biggest job? Think again. We had a shelter to build, bales of hay to collect and store, and bags of feed to schlep around. We had four little lives to enrich. Lucky for them the children had grown out of their wooden climbing frame. Old tractor tyres were acquired (not as easy as you might think), and thanks to my handy brother-in-law, cut in half and set into the ground. Friends came to inspect the goat house and wanted to move in. My husband, who had faced ridicule when he first predicted an investment of several thousand pounds, suddenly started to look like the Mystic Meg of the goat world.
‘Enrichment is really key,’ stressed Claire. ‘Spend lots of time with them – once they are living with you, you’ll be their herd.’ As with dogs, it’s also worth remembering they aren’t just for Christmas. A goat’s official lifespan is 10-15 years, but they can live much longer.
Like dogs, goats love routine and are sociable, inquisitive and come when you call their name (when it suits them, anyway). Food is a big driver, and they will be all over you at the first sniff of a treat, but will stay for a pet or a back scratch. They are pretty easy to train, and can be walked on a lead. They also love a chat (it might be just me, but there are times I’m sure they are answering back).
Unlike dogs, they don’t need regular walks. In fact, plans to take them down the Fox & Duck or on the school run were instantly shelved when we saw the amount of paperwork involved. Before you even pick up your goats, you’ll need to have a County Parish Holding (CPH) number – a relatively simple process of online application. Then there are several other adminis
‘They’ll eat your shoes. They’ll escape. They’ll drive you mad with the noise.
You’ll constantly be clearing up poo. Don’t they smell?’
trative stages, including transportation documents when you take them from one home to the next.
If you want to walk your goat publicly, you’ll need to do so on a set route agreed by Defra, under a Walking Licence. (Tori Spelling obviously didn’t need one when she was pictured in LA walking her pet Totes Mcgoat.) You should also make sure you won’t encounter dogs off the lead – loose dogs can cause a goat extreme stress and physical harm. While our goats were being photographed for this feature, alongside their neighbour Bobby the dog, who they rub along with very nicely on opposite sides of the fence, they were all under control and never within touching distance.
There are also retail opportunities aplenty. As well as a hay feeder, there are collars, harnesses and leads to buy (each of our goats are individually colour coordinated). There are also bowls, buckets and salt licks to choose. And that’s before you even start on their winter coats. Homestead Farm Supplies has introduced a dedicated range of fun and fashionable accessories for pygmy goats. ‘How could you not fall in love with pygmies?’ founder and owner Matthew Tims says. ‘Ten years ago, we really struggled to find supplies. Now, particularly in the past five years, we are seeing unprecedented demand for everything from headcollars to coats.’
When ‘G’ day arrived, we were instantly smitten with Flash, Blue, Crumble Pie and Maggie. As I first took hold of Crumble Pie, she burped alarmingly. ‘There’s a lot more where that came from,’ stated Glenn matter-of-factly. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ (Giving off gas in this way is a sign your goat has a healthy digestive system.)
Driving away was like leaving hospital with a newborn. Life suddenly felt that bit more fragile with these four helpless little goatlings in our care. The first night, our hearts were in our mouths as we shut them up for the night, straw packed to the max (creating the goat equivalent of a 2,500 pocket-sprung mattress, all natural fibres, obviously). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the family to have a sleepless night catastrophising. There might not have been crying puppies in our house, but they still kept us up at night.
The next day, all my fears came true one after the other as Flash pushed his head through the fence and couldn’t get it out, Crumble Pie developed a lump where she’d had her vaccination, and none of them seemed to be eating very much. The collars we’d bought (the smallest on the market) were way too big and I had to resort to ordering emergency premature puppy versions.
But it seems it doesn’t take long for goats to settle into family life. The daily care routine is not only proving great discipline for the kids (the human ones), but a shared experience for all of us. There are, after all, four new characters to discuss: who endearingly headbutted who, whose shirt got nibbled, whose foot was licked – and who got a kiss. How shy Maggie is getting increasingly confident, how bold Blue came and sat on Daddy’s lap, how Crumble Pie likes to leap legs akimbo off the tyre stack and how Flash just can’t get any cheekier. And, as with all new arrivals, poo updates to be analysed (neat little balls that pop out like Pez dispenser sweets, since you ask and – the excitement! – a great garden fertiliser too). Visitors can’t actually believe how cute they are. Or how tiny. My friend bought them pretty ‘little’ cowbells back from Austria. ‘Will they fit round their necks?’ she pondered. ‘Auntie Jacqui, they are bigger than their heads and will deafen them,’ responded my 10-yearold emphatically.
There have been plenty of ‘new mum’ panics, including suspected goat bloat (actually they just needed to burp). Claire and Glenn, however, have been true to their word and are always on the end of the phone with a ready response.
We are all, in case you hadn’t already noticed, absolutely besotted. Even our tabby cat likes to saunter round and see what’s occurring in the goat house. Oh and Bobby the dog, of course, who spends hours at a time staring longingly into their paddock, trying to work out what they’re about. I’m not sure who’s going to tell him they aren’t actually fellow doggies. Or when.
Or maybe we just won’t bother. There’s not that much difference, after all.
Claire out for walkies with her herd
Top: Claire with Blue and Maggie. Above: Claire with her son Charley and daughter Amelie with Maggie, Flash, Blue and Crumble Pie