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Keeping Goats in the Garden

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With recent interest in keeping goats we asked reader Carmel Smith shares her experience of keeping goats in her suburban garden.

The other day I caught a couple of dog-walking strangers peeping through a gap in my hedge and pointing. This happens to us all the time because we keep goats in our suburban garden. Rosie and Chloe, our beautiful Anglo-Nubian kids, are recent additions to our suburban smallholding. We live on the outskirts of Crawley and can wave to the passengers on their descent into Gatwick. Not exactly a rural idyll, but we love it here.

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I hankered after goats for at least three years before I finally wore the rest of the clan down. You have got to be ready for nay-sayers if you are considering garden goats and of course you have to be aware of rules and regulations for keeping a farm animal as a pet.

“No Mum, I’m not telling my mates we’ve got goats now.”

“They won’t leave you a thing in the garden!”

While you don’t have to be swayed by even the wisest of heads when it comes to garden goats, their opinions should make you ask yourself the questions you might want to avoid:

  • Do you have the time and commitment to look after a small farm animal in a domestic environment?
  • Do you really have enough space?
  • Where are they going to live, and are your fences going to be strong enough?
  • Are you ever going to go on holiday again, and if you do who is going to look after them?

The not so internal voices will help you get clear in your mind just how badly you want them, and what you are prepared to put up with.

Research

First I read all the books… and I mean all the books.

Then I took the next step and joined my local goat club. This was a very good thing. They didn’t mind that I didn’t have any goats or that I didn’t come to any meetings. They sent me their magazines and then they offered me their handbook written with years of experience. Some of these people started with goats in their own gardens, so they may not think you are as mad as everyone else. Or they might. The West Sussex goat keepers’ handbook is full of top tips, one of the best being:

“Don’t start with billy goats. Ever.”

When I decided to go ahead earlier this year, the first thing I did was consider the space I could offer and the housing that two goats would need – two goats because they are herd animals, and if you keep them by themselves they will decline in sadness, away from their own kind.

Goats are herd animals - two's company.

Goats are herd animals – two’s company.

I do know one lady who not only kept one goat, but a billy at that. He followed her around everywhere and made her his surrogate family. They were very happy together but I don’t think it always works out like that. My girls get distressed if they have to be separated even for a few minutes.

Space and Housing

I am lucky enough to have a big garden on a corner plot, but the goats would still have to share the space with all the other members of the family, human and not-so. I decided on two separate enclosures of about 40ft by 35ft to be rotated each spring and autumn. This would help to avoid a build-up of parasites, but I would still have to follow a regular worming regime to keep them healthy. The plan was to have the housing on one plot, and a summer shelter on the other. So far the autumn/winter enclosure is fine, but the other one will have to wait until spring now.

Depending on your neighbours you may have to invest in 'classy' housing rather than possible 'shanty town' DIY to avoid complaints.

Depending on your neighbours you may have to invest in ‘classy’ housing rather than possible ‘shanty town’ DIY to avoid complaints.

If you start from scratch like I did, housing can be very expensive. There are lots of companies providing housing for larger animals like ponies and horses, and some purpose-built for goats. It was great fun looking at all the brochures and fantasising what it would be like to be a millionaire. In the end I went with purpose-built housing from a company from which I had bought a hen-house in the past. I would recommend a good, solid house because goats are lively and they don’t like to be cold.

The housing I bought is 18ft by 6ft with two separate stables and a communal area in between, particularly useful in bad weather when they really don’t want to go out. The idea was that they would have a stable each, but as yet they show no signs of wanting their own bedroom. Not like teenagers then.  You will need to factor in the cost of building a concrete base if you don’t already have one, which will depend on many things including how big you make it. I added a ‘patio’ of 18ft by 5ft so that if they wanted to poke their heads out in bad weather they could without having to have their hooves on muddy ground. I’ll come on to goats’ feet shortly, a whole other subject.

The 'patio' keeps hooves dry.

The ‘patio’ keeps hooves dry.

Checking out lead-in times is a good plan. My housing took six weeks from ordering. It was delivered in kit form in panels, and while the company is happy to erect it for you for a fee, we decided to keep costs as low as possible by doing it ourselves, and it went OK. We found it fairly easy between two adults and a teenager, and managed to do it in just 40 minutes with only a little bit of looking like the Chuckle brothers in the middle. Beware. The panels are really heavy.

I cannot emphases the importance of fencing. No matter how badly you want them, if you can’t provide good housing, and fencing that would repel the SAS, don’t do it. There are lots of great books to advise you on the details, but basically make it stronger than you think, and taller than you think. And still be vigilant.

If there is a way out - they will find a way out! Fencing is essential.

If there is a way out – they will find a way out! Fencing is essential.

Once I knew where they could go, and the housing and fencing I would use, the next thing was stock. I had read all the books and decided on British Toggenburgs. Then I went to the Summer show at Ardingly and met the couple who were eventually to supply my kids, although I didn’t know it at the time because they only keep Anglo-Nubians. It is a good thing if you can meet different breeds of goat in the flesh before you commit yourself, because just like with blokes you never know who you are going to fall in love with. I met Rosie and Chloe’s mother in the goat tent at Ardingly and changed my mind.

Finding the Right Goats

Matching buyers and breeders is another area where the goat-club people come into their own. If you tell them what you are looking for they can suggest suppliers that they know and can vouch for. I opted for pedigree goats because further down the line, if I do breed from them there is more of a chance of selling the kids, and I don’t have the space to begin a herd. I went to see the breeder at home and it turned out to be the couple I had met at Ardingly.

I saw the kids for the first time when they were four weeks old. I was given plenty of time to look at them and their family to see how big they would be when fully grown. Don’t miss this bit out. Meeting the breeders at home turned out to be the best practical experience of all. Good goat breeders may be a little mad about goats, but they are also full of advice and encouragement for a novice. It is also very wise to consider the set up your goats are coming from. If your stock is part of a large herd used to running on 6 acres of land, they may not adapt well to a much smaller space. My breeders had a similar small-scale set up, and it was very helpful to talk through aspects like fencing. They put absolutely no pressure on me and told me to think about it for a week before I came to a decision. I managed to wait 48 hours.

Preparation

Things move fast once you choose your stock. The kids would be ready at three months, so it was vital that the housing and fencing was ready before that. In an ideal world, at least. The housing arrived exactly when the company said it would, with exactly what they said would be there, and a few extra nails to be on the safe side. The builder, a family friend, scheduled when he would lay the base, with time to let it dry before Barry Chuckle and I tried to put the house up.

Expert advice and help

The breeders arranged to come over about six weeks after I collected the stock to give them an injection, and me a lesson in foot-trimming. It is important to have this skill demonstrated by an expert, but watch out as they will make it look easy. I also think part of the reason for their six week visit was just to make sure their beloved kids were in a safe place. They arranged all the paperwork and had already registered the kids with the Anglo-Nubian society.

Paperwork

There is quite a lot of paperwork involved with keeping goats. Holding numbers, herd numbers, Defra, trading standards… There are times when it seems everyone wants a piece of you.

Actually, no one is out to get you. If it seems a bit overwhelming, think hideous foot and mouth and it will put it into perspective. I found my local trading standards officer extremely helpful and reassuring. In the end they are looking out for the welfare of the animals, and that has to be a good thing.

First day in their new home

When you finally bring your goats home, it will be like returning home from the hospital for the first time with a new baby. Like a new baby there are things to get used to. Kids need to be bottled fed three times a day until they are old enough to be weaned at between four and six months. Goats are sensitive to changes in their feed. You will need to go through their normal feeding arrangements and ideally get a schedule from your breeders which you can adapt slowly. Their hooves will need to be trimmed every four to six weeks. The goat house will need to be mucked out once or twice a fortnight. This isn’t a big deal, though – goats are not terrible messy, well not after babies and chickens. Sometimes goats get diarrhoea. It can be changes in diet, but it can also be something much more serious. We had a bout about a month after they arrived, and while it was very worrying at the time, I had already been advised that if it happened I should replace the milk feeds with water for twenty-four hours, and get advice if it went on any longer. Fortunately it didn’t, but be prepared.

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Also be prepared to spend a lot of time watching them, petting them, and generally being in their thrall. My goats are lead trained because my breeder shows her animals. Walking your goats around the garden is a nice way to bond and make sure they get enough roughage under your watchful eye, but be aware this will be the final nail in the coffin of your sanity as far as the neighbours are concerned. I don’t let that stop me.

Finding a Vet

One problem I never expected to have was finding a vet. In an area where there seems to be one on every corner, nobody actually caters for large animals. It took a few months to find someone fairly local who was prepared to take us on. I would also suggest building up your own medical chest for emergencies.

Poisonous plants

Finally, a suburban garden can be a hostile environment for browsing goats. Plants that we gardeners prize for their appearance can be highly toxic to goats. Laurels, rhododendrons, foxgloves – all are poisonous. Get a good book to check up on dangerous plants, and don’t imagine that goats have the good sense to avoid them, because they don’t. I would also recommend a daily sweep of their paddock, particularly in windy weather due to next-door’s leaves. You can’t expect them to cut their trees down.

The Joys

I know there are lots of new challenges ahead of us like breeding and milking, but I have to say my girls are enormous fun. They have affectionate natures and enjoy human company, have marvellously slitty eyes with sometimes devious expressions, and wag their tails like dogs when I come down to see them. My garden goats are great.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in: Goats

About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

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