Autumn. Mists. Mellow fruitfulness. Kicking through piles of brown leaves, coldness on the tip of your nose, the sensation that here in the countryside, everything is quietening down and getting ready for the Big Sleep.
Everything but dairy goats, that is. From September through till March, every 21 days, these normally placid and gentle animals transform into lust-driven Jezebels. They spurn the parlour, with its tasty treats and trot off in search of a male, bleating loudly, tails wagging. They have only one thing on their mind and for once, it's not food.
So, while human thoughts turn to quiet, cosy fireside nights, Guy Fawkes and then Christmas, caprine brains focus on procreation, pure and simple. They fill the air with their longing cries, thwack the barn walls with their semaphore tails, their eyes imploring to go and see 'The Chosen One'.
Luckily, if you're born as a male goat in our herd, it's not such a bad thing. Sure, you might end up castrated at birth and sold as a pet later on (well, it beats instant euthanasia) but if your credentials are good, you're allowed to evolve into a fully-fledged goaty Don Juan. This is where all the hype about 'smelly goats' comes from. Goats, as a rule, do not smell in the slightest. Female goats are as 'smelly' as you keep them.
The male goat, on the other hand, should come with an olfactory health warning. If you want to get to the front of a queue in a crowded shop, rub yourself up to a male goat in the rutting season. The smell is hard to describe; it's fragrant and floral, sweet but not immediately offensive. It reminds me of a wedding guest who's overdone the Lynx. But Nature is clever: the smell of male goat can spread on the air for about 2 miles and once on your clothes or skin, it stays with you for days. It's no coincidence that many people who keep goats also make soap. And they keep experimenting with soap recipes for removing the heady aroma of males. Maybe that's where the phrase 'Billy No Mates' comes from?
|'You jump first.' 'No you jump first!'|
So what turns a cute little kid into a raging Lothario? Put it this way; at one day old, a male kid is as sweet as pie. At three days they're nibbling hay and bouncing off bales. At four days they're mounting their brothers, sisters and even trying it on with their mothers. At just five months, their beards grow long and they love nothing more than peeing on their heads, beards and front legs to intensify the smell. 'Hello honey, I'm hooooome!!' The hormones have kicked in. The Force in Them is Strong.
But we don't just let anyone mate with anyone in the herd. As a pedigree herd of Pure Saanens, these are special goats, all registered with the British Goat Society www.allgoats.com whose lineage goes back to the import of Swiss goats in 1926. Most of our most promising females are milk recorded (I measure the quantity and quality of their milk every month for a year) and many are descendants of Show Champions. Before selecting which 'Romeo' will woo which 'Juliette' I have to think about the following:
- Yield and length of lactation - can we improve the amount of milk we'll get
- Udder shape and attachment - Jordan udders are all very well but they won't last and have a habit on getting scratched in the long summer grass. Hoisting them up at milking time is also not much fun
- Topline - a back flat and smooth like a coffee table normally means the rest of the goat will 'hang well'
- Foot quality - healthy strong hooves are the equivalent of a good ticker. If a goat goes lame, their milking days are over.
Normally the female is taken to the male's 'lair' - if she hasn't found her way there already.
|Justin: powerful and ready for action|
The foreplay is impressive: he licks her face, he snorts, he bays. He licks her 'target zone'. He stamps his foot restlessly like a testosterone-fuelled bull. He climbs aboard and it's over in about three seconds. Whether it's 'a good one' or not is indicated by the way he throws his head back at the crucial moment. They do it several times. Sometimes, if the male gets tired and his performance lacklustre, the female will mount him to show him the score. At other times, the licking and petting turn to rearing up at each other and banging heads. Whatever floats your boat. But if all done at the right time of her cycle, the female will revert to her normal, laid-back self tomorrow. She'll be calm, cute and biddable. Like a doleful teenager who broke curfew the night before.
The mating date, time and liaison are duly noted and the goat watched carefully over the next 42 days (two cycles) to see if she 'returns'. With luck, there'll be healthy kids taking their first suckle 150 days or five months later. There's a lot more to getting goats in kid than meets the eye (and nose). It's not a case of letting the male run with the females in autumn or live with them in their pen. That results in a chaos of unplanned, ill-prepared kiddings and - horror! - incestuous pairings. In terms of the quality of the herd, it could end up in a hall of mirrors, with each goat repeating and reinforcing the same genetic deficiencies. And from the point of view of cheese, it'll mean your milk has a strong, goaty tang, and the complexities of your cheese flavour will be drowned out.
|Smooth, creamy, nutty: a young Brockette cheese|
You see? I could go on about goats for a long time. Goats came first and then the cheese. I think if you want to make good cheese, naturally and without too much chemical intervention, then you have to have good, healthy, happy goats in the first place. And you have to care about where your milk comes from.
So, this autumn, when you're out in the field, foraging for shrooms, picking damsons, plucking nuts off branches, we'll be focusing on nuts of a different kind.