Swiss invaders are driving out indigenous goat herds

2 Mar 2017

Billy goat from feral herd in Mulranny, Co Mayo, Ireland. Image: John Joyce

A new investigation into goats in Ireland and the UK shows ancient breeds are vanishing as ‘improved’ Swiss breeds replace the old guard.

Goat diversity is at a low point in the UK and Ireland, as Swiss breeds eke away at the ancient goat populations.

That’s according to a new study that looked at the DNA make-up of our herds, with natural history museums once again proving invaluable to scientific researchers.

Trinity College’s Lara Cassidy led a study that investigated 15 historical taxidermy specimens from Britain and Ireland and nine modern samples taken from Irish dairy and feral goat populations.

By measuring the species’ mitochondrial DNA, Cassidy found that we’re running out of variety.

Thanks to intensive selective breeding over the past 200 years, high extinction rates among feral populations and certain geographical moves towards other forms of agriculture, a greatly reduced genetic diversity is present in domestic goat breeds.

Mayo massive

The geneticists’ study highlights an endangered feral herd living in Mulranny, Co Mayo, as a unique population in need of protection. Mulranny goats show a genetic similarity to extinct ‘Old Goat’ populations that lived on the Isle of Skye in the 1800s. They can therefore be considered among the last remaining ‘Old Irish’ goats.

Species such as those found in Mulranny were once ubiquitous across the British Isles, but they are nearly all gone, largely replaced by Swiss.

Billy goat from feral herd in Mulranny, Co Mayo, Ireland. Image: John Joyce

Billy goat from feral herd in Mulranny, Co Mayo, Ireland. Image: John Joyce

“Studying these specimens and comparing them with modern-day animals also helps to pinpoint existing populations that have retained some of the past genetic diversity, much of which has been lost to industrialised breeding,” said Cassidy, a researcher from Trinity’s School of Genetics and Microbiology.

“Retaining this diversity as an option for future breeding is very important, but some of these populations are being pushed to extinction.”

The geneticists sampled a number of different old herds among the 15 taxidermy specimens. The results showed these goats formed two genetic groupings, distinct from other European breeds. Importantly, all of the modern-day Irish dairy goats fell into genetic groupings outside these two.

Look behind the glass

Using museum specimens perhaps sounds a bit archaic. However, the lack of synced-up knowledge we, as a species, enjoy about the world around us is so stark that, often, the answers to many of our questions are already logged and put in glass cases, accumulating dust.

In late 2015, scientists looked into how a natural history museum names its specimens only to discover that, well, they’re wrong as often as they are right.

The team studied 4,500 specimens of the African ginger genus Aframomum which, up until a major 2014 study, were misidentified to some degree in 58pc of cases. That got them wondering how deep the confusion actually is.

“There is an amazing wealth of genetic information locked away in taxidermic collections of animals that were – and still are – important for agricultural reasons,” said Cassidy.

“As such, these collections are invaluable in helping us study the population history of these domesticated animals.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic