All photos by David Ashwanden
When interacting with any animal it is important to develop a certain kind of presence, or focus; and goats are no exception. Having also worked with chickens, dogs, donkeys, horses, pigs, rabbits and sheep I have noticed that the same techniques are necessary to deal with all; although all are different as well.
In many ways the only way that you can develop this focus is by being with the animals and experimenting for yourself. But there are some guidelines which could be of use; and I shall endeavour to outline a few below based on my time as a goatherd.
When studying my PDC with Tree-You permaculture, I learned that goats, as highly sociable animals, can live with many other different species happily. What they cannot do, we were warned, is live alone.
This fact was brought home to me starkly one night when three of our four goats were killed by a stray dog. The remaining goat was inconsolable; whether we tried to give her food, walk or milk her (the latter entirely unsuccessfully) she did not stop bleating loudly. This went on for a good day or two, until we managed to replace her lost herd with new friends.
One of the herd
From this it is clear that goats are herd animals and if you bear this in mind they are relatively easy to control, even when they are loose. I used to walk our mini-herd for at least an hour twice a day; often in very close proximity to vegetable gardens which they were definitely not allowed to eat. I did not have any dogs to help me with the herding; so was this task difficult?
Not at all; as long as one remembers to assume the position of ‘leader’ of the pack at all times. There are different ways to do this: a fellow goatherd used the method of repeatedly throwing rocks to land just next to the group of goats on the side in which he did not want them to walk. The idea was to scare the goats away from heading in that direction by making it clear that danger lay that way.
From my own observations of the goats it did not seem that they were taken in by the ploy; they could see that it was their human leader who was throwing the rocks and not some hidden peril. However, since he was the leader they chose to go where he wanted them.
I have seen this technique work many times but if you use the rock-throwing method or methods like it (such as using a stick to drive the goats in one direction or another) then the result will be that your goats are always a little jumpy and quick to panic. This could be beneficial, as they can be more easily pointed in one direction swiftly when they are in this state. But if they are not calm or at ease, they can also be more likely to run completely at random in any direction and without warning. If they do this you can redirect them again with rocks; but then they will become even more panicky.
Less fear, more friends
Most of the time, I found it more effective to guide the goats in a more subtle way. When I first started walking the goats on a daily basis I was advised to carry a large stick as an emblem of my status as leader; but I soon realised that if I walked purposefully and always with a sense of certainty then the goats responded much more to this than the stick.
When I wanted to lead them somewhere I would ensure that all goats had their attention on me, then stride purposely forwards in one direction. At this, the herd would begin following their leader; and once I had reached a place for good grazing I would stop and make my way to a position slightly higher than the goats. In this way I could keep an eye on all of them and they could watch me to see when I, as their leader, wanted them to move on.
If they began walking in a direction which I did not want them to go, I would stand firmly and call: not shouting, but speaking very explicitly, while gesturing for them to go in the way which I wanted them to.
This method worked gloriously; as long as I remembered to stay in my role as ‘leader’ at all times. If my attention wandered for even a couple of minutes, I could quite immediately feel my authority over them slipping, and their own attention wandering to new places….
Getting it right
Perhaps at first it may feel a little awkward exuding the right amount of confidence. But have a hope; this is something which everyone can do, and something which, the more you get used to it, the easier you will find to master.
Another thing which I have observed about goats is that on the whole, they are pretty inquisitive — not to mention unpredictable — animals. So even though you may be feeling at your most commanding, and everyone in the herd is following you fine, it could easily occur (especially if you are still relatively new to this) that suddenly something catches the attention of one of the goats — and the herd is gone.
Here your observation skills come in useful. Normally in any herd there is some kind of hierarchy, and you should be able to ascertain fairly quickly which of the goats is the leader (when they are not all being guided by you).
This is the goat you need to focus on if you feel as though you are losing control. Calmly approach the goat and when you are close enough, either nudge her with your knee towards the direction you wish her to go, or (if she is being stubborn), take her by the horns or collar and begin leading her. Once you have her the others will follow; accepting your authority.
Surprise is always possible
Goat behaviour is a source of great delight, great bemusement, and occasionally great frustration — sometimes all at once!
As highly resourceful creatures with the ability to both dig underneath fences and jump over them, eat pretty much anything that grows and leap into the most awkward and difficult to access spots, from rocky outcrops to halfway up a tree, it is clear that they could very easily not be doing what you want them to at all.
From my own experience it seems that one of the most effective ways to develop a relationship with goats whereby you are benefitting the most is to assume a role of guide rather than of master. After all, if you are keeping goats then the things which you do for them — walking, feeding, milking, cleaning out — are all for the goats’ own good. They may not necessarily recognise this, but as long as you do they will be able to sense your goodwill and thus be more likely to do what you want them to.
They will almost definitely still surprise you with some new and cunning behaviour. But remember to keep your presence and focus; and you can take it all in your stride.