Since this photo of a year ago, Artic Willow has become a mum to daughter Aspen, who’s already won the best kid class at an agricultural show on Orkney where they both live. In a couple of weeks time I’ll back on the Northern Isles and hoping to photograph both of them. Goats are extraordinary animals but tough to work with because they’re in a state of constant motion. So making a portrait like the one above involves at least as much luck as skill… In short, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping to get lucky again!
Arctic Willow is a prize winning goatling, an adolescent kid who is by turns stroppy, feisty and beguiling. Over the last six weeks I have been photographing her, which is not without its challenges because she’s in constant motion.
Animals are certainly one of my “subjects” and I try to go beyond the furry cuteness to catch a sense of the being itself. In Artic Willow’s case, she’s such an in-your face- flamboyant diva that she overwhelms you with her “beingness”.
However, goats are also famed for their “devilish” qualities. Or, as a farmer recently remarked to me on Facebook, “Goats are just like sheep only evil”. But Arctic Willow is far too much of a drama queen to be called evil… although maybe, just possibly there’s a hint of the dark side along with the endless mischief.
A little of the ancient history of Arctic Willow and her sort
Goats are among the earliest animals domesticated by humans. The most recent genetic analysis confirms the archaeological evidence that the wild Bezoar ibex of the Zagros Mountains is the likely original ancestor of probably all domestic goats today.
Neolithic farmers began to herd wild goats primarily for easy access to milkand meat, as well as to their dung, which was used as fuel, and their bones, hair and sinew for clothing, building and tools. The earliest remnants of domesticated goats dating 10,000 years before present are found in Ganj Dareh in Iran. Goat remains have been found at archaeological sites in Jericho, Choga Mami, Djeitun and Çayönü, dating the domestication of goats in Western Asia at between 8000 and 9000 years ago.
Studies of DNA evidence suggests 10,000 years BP as the domestication date.
Goats are naturally curious. They are also agile and well known for their ability to climb and balance in precarious places. This makes them the only ruminant to regularly climb trees. Due to their agility and inquisitiveness, they are notorious for escaping their pens by testing fences and enclosures, either intentionally or simply because they are used to climbing. If any of the fencing can be overcome, goats will almost inevitably escape. Due to their intelligence, once a goat has discovered a weakness in the fence, they will exploit it repeatedly, and other goats will observe and quickly learn the same method.
Goats explore anything new or unfamiliar in their surroundings, primarily with their prehensile upper lip and tongue, by nibbling at them, occasionally even eating them.
When handled as a group, goats tend to display less herding behavior than sheep. When grazing undisturbed, they tend to spread across the field or range, rather than feed side-by-side as do sheep. When nursing young, goats will leave their kids separated (“lying out”) rather than clumped, as do sheep. They will generally turn and face an intruder and bucks are more likely to charge or butt at humans than are rams.
A study by Queen Mary University reports that goats try to communicate with people in the same manner as domesticated animals such as dogs and horses. Goats were first domesticated as livestock more than 10,000 years ago. Research conducted to test communication skills found that the goats will look to a human for assistance when faced with a challenge that had previously been mastered, but was then modified. Specifically, when presented with a box, the goat was able to remove the lid and retrieve a treat inside, but when the box was turned so the lid could not be removed, the goat would turn and gaze at the person and move toward them, before looking back toward the box. This is the same type of complex communication observed by animals bred as domestic pets, such as dogs. Researchers believe that better understanding of human-goat interaction could offer overall improvement in the animals’ welfare. The field of anthrozoology has established that domesticated animals have the capacity for complex communication with humans when in 2015 a Japanese scientist determined that levels of oxytocin did increase in human subjects when dogs were exposed to a dose of the “love hormone”, proving that a human-animal bond does exist. This is the same affinity that was proven with the London study above; goats are intelligent, capable of complex communication, and able to form bonds. Despite having the reputation of being slightly rebellious, more and more people today are choosing more exotic companion animals like goats. Goats are herd animals and typically prefer the company of other goats, but because of their herd mentality, they will follow their owners around just the same.