A milking goat is reported to have accompanied British navigator James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand. On Cook’s second voyage, he liberated goats from England in the Marlborough Sounds in 1773. Later introductions to nearshore islands, or around the coast, appear to have been to provide food for visiting ships and castaways (on Three Kings, Great Barrier and Auckland islands, and on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds). Goats were also released as food for prospectors, gold miners, and road and railway workers.
These goats were probably utility animals which could provide both milk and meat. They ultimately formed the basis of the feral goat population around the country.
About 1867 a number of angora goats, which produce mohair fibre, were introduced by the Auckland, Canterbury and Otago acclimatisation societies in an attempt to farm animals with more valuable skins.
Goats were considered clean by Jewish dietary laws and were slaughtered for honoured guests. They were also acceptable for some kinds of sacrifices. On Yom Kippur, the festival of the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen and lots were drawn for them. One was sacrificed and the other was allowed to escape into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the community. The word ‘scapegoat’ originates in this practice.
Normally goats did not move far from where they were first set free until their food supply was almost exhausted. Goats were introduced in some places to help control weeds like blackberry and scrub. They were usually inadequately fenced, so many escaped to cross-breed and establish new feral populations, especially in hill and mountain areas.
In 1920 it was reported that there were about 30,000 goats in the region between Lakes Wānaka and Wakatipu, and four years later that ‘goat shooting is now obtainable in many localities … their distribution is fairly general throughout the Dominion’. 1
By 1947 there were also very large, dense infestations of goats in Marlborough and in western and northern Taranaki.
Impact on vegetation
As goat numbers increased, their effect on native vegetation became obvious. In forests, almost all vegetation within 1–1.3 metres of the ground was either eaten or ringbarked, especially on sunny slopes and at the bushline. In 1929 the State Forest Service annual report stated that goats were second only to deer as destroyers of regenerating forest. Where goat numbers had increased in the drier regions of Marlborough and Otago, they competed directly with sheep for available feed. In 1947, one Central Otago station ran 4,000 sheep and 6,000 wild goats.
The loss of vegetation led to soil deterioration and erosion, especially at higher altitudes. However, possums and deer were also implicated.
The Judas goat
One way of controlling feral goats involves a ‘Judas goat’, which is fitted with a transmitting collar and let loose in a wild area. Goats are social creatures, so the animal finds new companions – and then the goat cullers arrive.
At first the control of goats was primarily in the hands of landowners. The status of the animals was complicated by the fact that some farmers fenced them in for weed control, while others allowed goats to roam over farms and forest. The Department of Internal Affairs got funds for goat culling in 1937. Between 1937 and 1946, Internal Affairs shooters killed about 43,000 goats, and a further 73,000 in 1946–47.
Feral goats are wild animals under the Wild Animal Control Act 1977, and it is an offence to release goats into the wild or carry out an act that will cause an increase in the feral population. The Department of Conservation is responsible for goat control in conservation areas.
Farmed goat numbers
In 1990, when the demand for goat fibre was high, it was estimated that there were about a million goats on farms in New Zealand – 68% of these animals in the North Island. After fibre and goat prices declined in the early 1990s, goat numbers dropped to about 153,000 (71% in the North Island) in 2002, and have probably fallen further since then. This compares with about 39 million sheep and 4.1 million dairy cows in 2005.