Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What goats are like, part 1. Herd animals!

The biggest surprise of our first months on our homestead was encountering the nature of goats.

Up till then, we had thought of them as cud-chewing milk-producers on 4 legs.

We had a lot to learn. Goats are incidentally good producers of delicious and nutritious milk, but their real purpose in life is to be part of the family.

That's because goats are all about being in herd. They are happy to join the little herd of people who bring them home, and expect you to know all about herd rules.

The herd's first rule is Stay Together. If the family were to bring a single goat home, then leave it in the pen while the rest of the family went into the house, then this rule is broken, and two things happen as a result:

1. The family is loudly commanded to return for their member who was left behind.
2. If that doesn't work, all effort must be put forth to leave the pen and rejoin the family.

Goats are usually successful in rejoining the herd through one of the techniques.

The second rule is Follow The Leader. Herds know who the leader is. It is perhaps the tallest goat, or the bossiest goat, or maybe the one goat that is both tall and bossy. If the family were to bring a single goat home, the goat would recognize the leader of the herd immediately. It is that tall and bossy person that all the other members of the family herd around.

So don't expect obedience to anyone else.

Monique was our herd's leader. She was oldest, the first to arrive, and she was big. Maybe goats have other criteria we don't know about. In any case, she was the boss.

That's why when we went for our walk in the woods, all we had to do was entice Monique to come along and the others would soon be following.

Herd behavior explained a lot.

But what happens when you bring home a goat who has been the Top Goat in another herd, and your herd already has one?

Well, the usual bickering of course. Calling names. Butting. Kicking sometimes. Lots of discussion. Then one goat emerges as leader, and it's almost never the new girl on the block.

Take Paula for example. Paula didn't come to us for several years, but when she did, she expected to be boss. She was big and sassy, with a mouth that just wouldn't quit. But she had a lot of competition: Monique had been there for four years, and even though she was approaching 9 years of age, the high end for a goat, she had an eye for leadership - a very goaty intense no-nonsense eye - and Paula did not prevail.

So Paula said Fine! You may be the boss of this herd, but...butt butt butt...

Now about this time one of the younger does had 3 kids. And Paula had 4 of her own, all tough little bucklings of whom she was very proud. Paula saw her opportunity. Every time one of those happy, bouncy new babies ventured near her, she spanked it.

I was sitting in the milkroom one day milking the new mom, while her babies cavorted just outside the milkroom door. Paula hustled over and reached down and gave each one a mighty smack with her muzzle, which sent it flying.

Her own boys could do no wrong in her eyes, but anyone else's baby was fair game. She was the boss of the nursery. So there.

In the wild there's safety in numbers, and only the most vulnerable get picked off. Whenever a stray dog ventured into the yard, the goats would huddle together and faced them. When goats run with sheep in a herd, it is just for this reason: the sheep allow themselves to be herded by the dog or wolf but the goats stand their ground.

And interestingly, our own children were allowed to be part of the herd, playing in the pen around the goats, but other children were not.

If we just understood how herds worked, we stayed out of trouble.

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