Goat Rescue Conserves Rare Breed of Spanish Goats

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Goat kids resting peacefully in a volunteer's arms.
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A volunteer greets a herd of Spanish goats.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has completed the first phase of rescuing an isolated population of Spanish goats on an island in South Carolina. This population is one of only two known strains of Spanish goats to exist in the Southeast. Their genetics are extremely valuable to the Spanish goat population as a whole, which currently numbers less than 7,500 animals in the entire United States.

This specific population has adapted to the challenges of the hot, humid, swampy environment of the Southeast for 500 years. These adaptations are unique among Spanish goats and are worth conserving.

According to Dr. Phil Sponenberg, professor of pathology and genetics at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, “Spanish goats are important as one of the main landrace representatives in the US for the goat species. As is true of landrace livestock, they tend to be adapted and productive in compromising environments. The southeastern representatives of the landrace are extremely important, because these are the very ones expected to have the most inherent resistance to parasites and other environmental challenges. These few remaining herds are extremely important to save as an intact genetic resource.”

Due to inbreeding and predation, the South Carolina Spanish goat population is threatened with extinction. Just 30 years ago, there were over 100 goats on the island. Today, fewer than 30 remain. These animals possess valuable genetics that need to be maintained for future generations. Removing selected animals from the population and placing them into a conservation breeding program will ensure the survival of this unique strain.

On May 15, ALBC staff members Jeannette Beranger and Marjorie Bender traveled to South Carolina to complete the initial phase of the removal process. Previous trips ensured the herd was documented and photographed. Photographs were then evaluated by Sponenberg, ALBC’s technical advisor, to determine Spanish phenotype and to identify target conservation animals prior to beginning removal. 

ALBC staff members worked closely with the local community to ensure they were educated about the breed and the process for removing the animals. They were supportive of the efforts and a local Native American group, Keepers of the Word, assisted with the rescue. The group consisted of teens and their leaders from the Keepers of the Word “Venture Crew,” which is a scout group for teens with a focus on Native American principles.

“This was an opportunity to connect tribal members with animals they would have traditionally kept hundreds of years ago and incorporate them into the genetic rescue efforts,” says ALBC project leader Jeannette Beranger. “Ideally, one or more residents will want to become conservation stewards so the animals would literally return home, but to a safer environment.”

In the first phase of the rescue, two pregnant does were removed along with one doeling and one buckling.  Members of Keepers of the Word assisted with moving the goats, while volunteers provided their boats for transport. Cathy Nelson, director of Keepers of the Word, felt “this was a true service learning experience.” She says, “We’ve been trying to shed light on how DeSoto and other Spanish explorers impacted the tribes in our area and these goats are a living legacy of that era.”

Goats were brought to the mainland where they were documented, hair samples were taken for genetic analysis, and they were moved into a large trailer for transport. The pregnant does were transported to Brookgreen Gardens, a sculpture garden and wildlife preserve just south of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Brookgreen Gardens has agreed to work with ALBC to develop a conservation breeding herd from which satellite flocks can be established as numbers are increased. Brookgreen has several other rare breeds of livestock and has devoted over 6 acres to house the goats. The proximity of Brookgreen Gardens to the island ensures the goats will be kept in a natural habitat similar to that of the island. 

The young doeling and buckling that were removed are being kept by volunteers, as they require regular bottle feedings. Once they are able to browse and forage, they will be transported to Brookgreen Gardens to join the rest of the herd. Removal of the young animals was necessary to ensure they were not eaten by predators.

Select animals will continue to be removed and transported to Brookgreen Gardens. As the population grows, satellite flocks will be established.

“Following conservation breeding strategies will be critical to the survival of this line. The small population makes the challenge significant, but with the cooperation of satellite breeders and careful management this strain and its unique adaptation to the hot, humid and marshy Southeast can be saved,” says Marjorie Bender, ALBC research and technical programs director. “The goal of our efforts is to secure these animals and their genetics for future generations.”

About ALBC

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect over 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Included are donkeys, cattle, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. Founded in 1977, ALBC is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. ALBC’s mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. 

Why are domestic breeds of livestock and poultry in danger of extinction?

Modern agriculture and food production favors the use of a few highly specialized breed selected for maximum output in intensively controlled environments. Most traditional breeds do not thrive in these conditions, so they have lost popularity and are faced with extinction. 

Why is genetic diversity important?

Like all ecological systems, agriculture depends on genetic diversity to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Genetic diversity in domestic animals is revealed in distinct breeds, each with different characteristics and uses. Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to disease and parasites. As agriculture changes, we need to be able to draw on this genetic diversity for a broad range of uses and future opportunities. Once lost, genetic diversity is gone forever.