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A Farm of Our Own: An Excerpt

Chapter 3: Goats

‘You don’t suppose we spoil the animals, do you?’ I called to Rosemarie as she worked in the garden. I was cutting off the remaining wasted autumn blackberries with the secateurs as an evening treat for the goats.

For some reason the question went unanswered. Oh well, I guess it was only a rhetorical question after all. It was pretty obvious. Why else would I be picking blackberries for the goats? But then our animals were not run-of-the-mill farm animals.

The goats were our first livestock. It had been our intention to obtain a few goats to produce enough milk for ourselves with some excess to sell. With this in mind, our first goat was hardly the ideal choice – a yearling, from whom we would have to wait at least a year before we got any milk! So keen were we to get a goat that this oversight seemed to escape us at the time.

Sophie was a white crossbred goat. Very pretty with long dangling ears and a tiny pink nose. But, as we were soon to find out, she was also very scatty and had a manic bleat which was more like a screech that would not have been out of place in a Hitchcock horror film. We got her home and into the stable we had prepared for her and Sophie seemed to be sulking. She wouldn’t eat any of the goat mixture we offered her, or any greenery. And then she started running round in circles jumping up at each wall in turn and bleating dementedly. As newcomers to goat-keeping we were frantic with worry.

‘What are we going to do?’ cried Rosemarie. ‘I can’t stand all this noise for long.’

‘She probably just needs time to settle down,’ I suggested helpfully.

‘We’ll have to do something soon or we’ll have the neighbours complaining.’

The farmer from whom we had brought Sophie, Mr Jones, suggested that, since goats were herd animals, she probably wanted company. No, it wasn’t a ploy on his part to sell us another goat! At first he said he had no more to sell.

Mr Jones eventually agreed to sell us Lin, a heavily in-kid British Alpine – an attractive breed with a black coat and white markings. We collected and brought her home just six days after Sophie, though it seemed much longer.

Lin was a goat of more mature years with an impassive nature, who seemed to take everything in her stride. It was with some difficulty we got Lin into my rather inappropriate hatchback. On the way home the mirth of drivers behind as well as several passers-by made us realise poor old Lin’s swollen private parts were clearly visible to all and sundry through the back window. Not that she seemed to care.

Lin kidded at Easter, much to my delight as I was at home to witness the first births on our little farm. Not, it has to be said, that I was of much help. All that blood and placenta! It was a lovely warm sunny day, which was ideal as they could all enjoy the outdoors air. I helped Rosemarie to dry off the kids – two males and a female – and we made sure they knew where to find their milk supply. Rosemarie impressed upon me several times the importance of the first suckle for newborns as the milk is mainly colostrum, which contains natural antibodies from the mother. Ideally they should have their first feed within a couple of hours of their birth.

Now that Lin had kidded, we would have some milk. She was not a heavy milker, giving between four and six pints a day, but this was more than enough for ourselves, with some left over to sell. In order to get the milk we had to separate Lin from her kids, keeping them in a separate stable, and hand rearing Rosy and the ‘Billy Boys’ on dried milk.

The goats spent the nights in the stable and went out into the paddock during the day, unless it was actually raining or frosty, or if there was snow on the ground. Even if it was dull and overcast they went out. Sophie, in particular, called – or rather, bawled – to be put out every morning. But they would soon call to go back inside if it started to rain. Their thin coats were not designed to withstand the rain or cold.

The stables were not ideal for the goats, but with some minor conversion they proved acceptable. The hay racks, bucket holders, and mangers, having been set at horse height, all needed lowering, of course. We kept three or four goats in one stable. When, a little while later, we had six or seven goats and had to split them between two stables, we found it was too much work. And three or four goats were sufficient for our needs anyway.

There was always a scrum at feeding time. They needed two mangers and two hay racks, as four goats had great difficulty in sharing just one. With the two mangers they seemed to spend much of their time running from one to the other, pushing each other out of the way. But if they wanted to spend their time this way, then that was up to them. It did mean, though, that the goats ate whatever they could, and that we were unable to vary the quantity of feed for an individual goat. But then we weren’t that scientific in our feeding anyway. If we did need to give special rations to one of them, then we could feed her outside the stable.

And then with one hay rack they all fought for the hay and much of it fell to the ground from where it would not be picked up. Contrary to popular belief goats do not eat just anything. They will nibble at almost anything, but they are, in fact, very fussy eaters. And they wasted a lot of hay. Learning that all goat keepers had the same problem was not much of a consolation.

In order to milk them we took the milking goats out of the stable one at a time and fed them their ration of goat mix, whilst we pulled on the other end. Occasionally one of the non-milkers would get out, and we would then have an almighty scrum to catch it, put it back and get the right goat. Once they had finished their ration of feed they wouldn’t allow us any more milk. Rosemarie was chief milker. It was a long time before I was anything like proficient at milking and I invariably ended up giving them twice the ration, and I still got only half the milk!

We learned a local health food shop was looking for a new supplier of goat’s milk. When we approached them, they were delighted and said they couldn’t get enough and they’d be able to sell all we could produce. We thought we’d hit the jackpot first time. This called for another goat!

And so we bought Brolly, a great hairy Toggenberg with a mottled light-brown coat and a rather domineering character. She used to tyrannise poor Sophie, Rosy and the Billy Boys, although she never got the upper hand over Lin, who was quite clearly ‘senior goat’.

The goats became quite used to their shelter in the paddock for when it rained. There was always some bitching, biffing and biting of bums when all they could do was stand in the shelter waiting for the rain to stop. On one occasion Brolly forced poor Sophie out of the shelter into the rain, and Sophie ended up catching a chill, for which we had to call out the vet. Not only was Brolly causing aggravation, but now she was costing us money as well.

Brolly was already in milk when we bought her, so we went back to the health food shop. Yes, they said, they’d have twenty pints a month. Twenty! That wasn’t even a pint a day. What a let down! And what were we going to do with all that extra milk?

We decided breeding Angora goats for their fleeces was going to be the next up-and-coming business. But there was a slight problem there. We couldn’t afford to buy a purebred Angora as the price was at a premium. A single goat could cost two or three thousand pounds. The alternative was to ‘grade up’. If we were to cross a dairy goat with an Angora and put their offspring to an Angora, after five generations we would end up with a purebred. It would take several years, and we would need to have a female from each mating, but we decided to give it a go.

So when she next came into season I took Sophie to an Angora buck. Arranging a goat’s love life was a new experience for me. I had to hold Sophie, on her lead, whilst the buck sniffed around her rear quarters and – er... – well, did what he was supposed to do.

The lady owner, Joan, who we knew only slightly, laughed:

‘I don’t know what my mother would say if she could see me doing this with a strange man!’

As it was, her mother couldn’t see us. In fact, even if she had, I doubt she would have realised what was going on as she suffered from dementia. Joan, poor lady, worked nights as an auxiliary in an old peoples’ home, and looked after her mother and the animals during the day. If she wasn’t mucking out goats, pigs or cattle, she was mucking out her mother or the members of the home.

To add to the comedy, Angora goats are comparatively small animals and Sophie was quite tall anyway. So we had to find somewhere where the buck was at a higher level than she was.

After the event, we went inside to see to the paperwork and have a cup of tea, and then we went outside again to repeat the performance – just to be sure!

Five months later Sophie produced three fine kids, a male, who we named Gozo, and two females, Polo and Noddy. They had the finest fleeces I have ever seen on a first cross Angora – but then I do admit to being just a little biassed.

We sold Brolly soon after that as we had no need for all the milk. We had by then put up a ‘Goats Milk For Sale’ sign in the front garden. That and word of mouth attracted one or two private customers for the milk, and we also sold some to a local farm shop. But it didn’t amount to many pints a month, and we were not going to get rich at twenty-five pence a pint!

On the whole, goats are quite intelligent creatures. Gemma, I guess, was the exception that proves the rule. She was a black and white Anglo Nubian. She had very unusual and pretty markings, but always seemed to be sixpence short of a shilling.

She was last at almost everything. The other goats would be well into their feed before Gemma realised it was feeding time. Out in the paddock we would often see her gazing vacantly into space, apparently contemplating the mysteries of the universe, oblivious of the fact that the rest of the herd had by then made their way to the other end of the field. When she realised they’d gone, she would gallop down the field in her rather ungainly fashion to catch up with them, calling out, ‘Wait for me, wait for me.’

Despite her apparent retardation, though, she did seem to know what was expected of her when we took her to the billy. In fact, she didn’t want to come home!

When Gemma kidded, Rosemarie had gone off to work, leaving me to be midwife. It was about ten o’clock at night when she started. Like a nervous father-to-be I kept going outside to the stable to see if there were any signs of the impending birth and returning indoors when there was not.

When the first kid started to arrive, I helped her by pulling it off. I then had to ensure its nostrils were clear of mucus so it could breathe, and sprayed its navel with iodine. It was her first kidding and she seemed a little bemused by it all, not knowing quite what to do. I left her licking off her first born and went inside for a while and rang Rosemarie at the hospital to report on progress.

When I went out again, there were signs of a second arrival. I helped with that birth too, and I tried to make sure that both the kids knew where to look for their milk, and then left her to it.

I checked them all again before going off to bed and everything seemed to be fine. Imagine my surprise, though, when I checked her the following morning to find there were now three kids. There seemed nothing further for a seasoned goat midwife to do apart from spraying its navel, so I went off to work leaving a note for Rosemarie for when she got in half-an-hour later.