Firstly, don’t expect your goat to behave … well, not in the way you always want her to!
Goats are lively, curious and competitive, and they get up to all sorts of mischief. Shouting at them doesn’t help. You need to learn to see the world through a goat’s eyes to best understand them.
So instead, first get to know some goats, so you’re familiar with their typical character – bouncy, chaotic, fun-loving, exuberant, antagonistic, friendly, nervous, affectionate, funny, demanding, adventurous, inquisitive … and great to spend time with!
Goats selectively browse plants above ground level, so don’t be surprised that they don’t graze your grass short. They prefer bushes and trees, although they also eat long grass and weeds. They feed as a group and get distressed when separated or left out. They are also very competitive over food; you may need to supplement a smaller or weaker goat in a separate stall. However, make sure she can see or see the rest of the herd nearby, so she doesn’t get distressed by the separation.
Goats depend on each other to feel safe, so a single goat should never be isolated. The group also feel insecure if they are split up. When separated they will bleat to attempt to contact their missing herd-mates.
Although they need each other, they are also very competitive for food, water, resting places, mates and your company. A hierarchy has to be established within the flock to avoid excessive aggression. Until the hierarchy is settled, they will clash horns and push heads to test one another’s strength.
Your life and theirs will be much easier if you buy goats that are related, preferably kids who grew up together or mother and daughter. They get on a lot better than goats who are strangers. If you introduce an unknown goat to a herd, the hierarchy will need to be re-established, which can cause upset in the herd for several days. The new goat may get stressed and become susceptible to infection. If you are introducing new goats, always introduce a related pair if you can, as they will have each other for support, which will ease the stress of the situation. Introduce them gradually by housing them in an enclosure next door, and, when they finally meet, make sure they have plenty of space to flee from aggressors.
In the wild, goats normally move around together in small female family groups, mainly mothers and daughters. Males will form a loose herd during summer months, but the dominant male will find a female herd to join during the breeding season in autumn and winter. If you introduce a single entire male in autumn, he will be welcomed by the flock. If you keep more than one male, they will fight roughly during the breeding season, especially if they are evenly matched, and injuries are possible.
A breeding male can be kept with a wether (a male castrated shortly after birth) without too much danger of injury as the entire buck will be undisputedly dominant over his companion and will not feel the need to fight him for access to females. The males can then be introduced to the females for the breeding season, after which the male herd should be separated from the females for the rest of the year. This reflects their social pattern in the wild, so promotes fertility and minimizes fighting.
As well as hierarchy, goats also depend on leadership from older, experienced females. A young herd may lack confidence and be nervous of browsing too far from the shelter. An older, experienced doe will lead the flock to pasture and guide them to the best and safest feed. A mature leader is often the dominant, but not always. If the oldest doe is not the strongest, she may be deposed by a younger female. However, she may still be the one who leads the flock to forage. I’d recommend owning a doe older than three years old in any flock, to lead and keep the peace. Otherwise the flock may be too reliant on their human keeper.
Natural motherhood allows kids to learn good browsing habits and social skills from their mother and elder herd members. Kids will copy their mothers and elders and, in this way, learn which plants are good and safe to eat, which plants are poisonous and are to be avoided. They also learn how to keep their place in the hierarchy and avoid aggression. They will learn to fulfill their needs as a subordinate until they are of an age and strength to compete.
Kids who are separated early from their mothers, for example to be sold or to restrict access to milk for dairy purposes, do not gain this important education and may grow up with bad social habits or emotional impairment. A good compromise, sometimes practiced in organic and pastoral dairy systems, is to separate kids from their mothers at night in a crèche after 6-7 weeks old, and then let them browse with their mothers during the day and suckle them after milking. At 5 weeks old, kids tend to become more independent and group naturally with other kids of similar ages; they can then more easily adapt to grouping together without their mothers at night without distress.
Kids normally wean naturally between 4-6 months, but in dairy breeds this may not be possible as the mothers continue to produce milk. You may find you need to force weaning by separating mothers from kids. This is normally distressing for the kids and is best done in a crèche in a stall or field next to the mothers, providing them physical and visual contact, but preventing suckling. If the kids are kept together in their familiar groups, they should not suffer too much from separation anxiety, although they may bleat to call their mothers at times.
When a goat is raised by humans or has positive experience of humans from very young, the human is seen as a dominant herd member, herd leader or parent. So your goat may bleat for your attention and will generally appear happy and optimistic in your presence. If your goat is too attached to you or otherwise not contented with its environment without you, she may bleat for you excessively. This can be an issue with bottle-fed kids, who consider humans to be their mothers.
Conversely, goats is raised without human contact will be frightened of people, especially if their mother is wary. It can take a long time to gain the confidence of nervous goats and managing them is difficult.
Even if your goats are used to you, it may take them a while to lose their fear of strange people. Bottle-raised goats and kids who have been close to humans as young kids often accept any human as a friend, unless they prove otherwise.
Goats are very lively and like to play rough. Their horns can present a danger to young children, and even adults need to be wary of flying horns while playing or feeding.
Kids are friendly, playful and gentle. Antagonism develops later as the youngsters mature and feel the need to compete for food. Even if you give them plenty of food, their nature is so fine-tuned for competition, they feel the need to butt each other out of the way. On saying that, if they have insufficient feed, too small a living or feeding space, or kids to protect, they are much more likely to resort to violence towards other herd members than if they are well provided for.
Females tend to be easier to manage, but youngsters can still be very bouncy and naughty. Wethers tend to butt more and remain boisterous as they age, so you need to be firm and train them well while kids not to jump up at you or butt you. They don’t understand what shouting or smacking mean; they don’t like it and will become frightened of you, but will probably re-offend. You are best training them when young by behaving like a dominant buck, simulating a low bleat and pushing them away, or by distracting them and awarding them for good behaviour.
Entire males become strong and energetic as they mature. In most breeds they are difficult to handle for amateurs and are best avoided unless you are an experienced breeder. You can probably find a breeder to service your females when the time comes without having to keep your own buck. The smell of a buck in season is very strong and unpleasant for most humans. They exert a lot of energy during the breeding season and can become quite frustrated if they have insufficient access to females or insufficient space and activity. Definitely not recommended for beginners!
Breed can also have an effect: high producers are often more competitive to meet their high dietary needs; this can make them prone to aggression. Rustic breeds are often calmer and easier to manage, as long as they are used to human contact.
Environment is also important: too small an enclosure, too many goats in a small space, too short a feeding rack, insufficient activity, inadequate feed can all lead to unusual levels of aggression between herd members, social stress and poor health and production in subordinate members.
Goats kept in enclosures can be given activities to improve their health, growth and well-being. An animal with a complex social structure, adapted to challenging foraging tasks and mountainous terrain, like a goat, can easily get bored in a restrictive environment. Adding activities and toys gives them the opportunity to use their cognitive and physical skills and so grow and develop healthily. This activity can also ease social strain that can lead to bullying.
Millions of years of living in mountainous areas have equipped goats with the desire and skills for climbing. Their tiny hooves and slim legs are built for negotiating difficult purchases. They actually appear to relish the challenge, spending time just mastering it for no visible reward.
Large rocks, walls or trunks are ideal; benches or planks and seesaws make great activity centres and can be easily and cheaply constructed. If your goats don’t have horns, hanging tyres are great fun for them. They like to push balls, rub against brushes or posts, butt hanging branches and eat hanging vegetation, like branches. Some more ideas for enrichment can be seen in these videos.
Within housing, goats like to rest against a wall, so partitions can help them all to find a spot to rest without too much competition. The younger, more subordinate goats prefer to jump up out of the way of their bigger, more dominant companions. Adding platforms and different levels to the stalls can help them feel safer and more comfortable. It also reduces antagonistic encounters. Kids like to hide in a secluded spot, a box or platform works well.
At the hay rack, partitions and holes for access prevent neighbours from side-swiping each other while eating.
Goats bleat quietly to each other to establish or maintain contact. It is a short, low, steady bleat with the mouth closed. I’ve found it quite effective to imitate this sound when greeting or reassuring my goats.
An isolated or distressed goat will bleat loudly, with mouth open and a high-pitched, variable note. This call has alerted me to goats in trouble, but one has learned to do this to bring me running and she uses it when she wants my attention. However, on the whole, contented, satisfied goats don’t do this, so it could indicate a current need or chronic emotional damage due to a difficult past.
Similarly, a human shrieking or calling in a high-pitched voice may be alarming to a goat. High calls are associated with danger or distress. Goats who are used to people may adapt to our tone of voice and it doesn’t trouble them. But, this is well-worth bearing in mind when dealing with feral or nervous goats and when introducing new humans, especially children, who naturally have high voices.
A buck uses a deep, guttural call to show dominance and attract females. Excited females may also use it during playful combat. Emulated a deep, loud bleat can work well as a warning to a young male or wether.
Other signs of communication in goats are by odour–they can judge fertility by scent of urine–and posture. Reading your goat’s body language can be a useful tool to understanding and handling.
Ears are forward when alert to a possible danger or feeding opportunity. They are flicked backwards in a threatening or unpleasant situation. Tail is up when positive and alert and down or between legs when sick, cold or defensive. A wagging tail invites attention and can be used when excited and positive or when frightened or antagonistic. The tail laid over the back shows excitement, either by food or by antagonism. Eyes are round and wide when afraid. Lips are pursed and jaw tense when in pain, frightened or defensive. Some photos of these postures can be seen on my Facebook page and Flickr album.
There is so much to say about behaviour–I’m sure I’ll be back with more!