When goats are bred for dairy farming, the billies are killed at birth. Many farmers believe it's more ethical and economical to rear them free-range for meat instead.
On the face of it, lawyer turned cheesemaker Will Atkinson is a walking, talking advert for giving up the rat race. Hill Farm, the dairy he set up with his wife, Caroline, in 2008, sits in 30 acres of picture-perfect rolling English pastures and woodland south-west of Taunton, with 100 goats gambolling happily around the place.
But there is a dark side to the dairy goat industry. Most male kids are killed at birth and their carcasses burned, or they are sold to the local hunt as meat for the hounds. Unsurprisingly, this makes Atkinson uneasy: “My goats aren’t just units on a spreadsheet … ,” he says. “They have names, so we see them as individuals.The idea of treating my billies as a waste product doesn’t sit comfortably.”
While the plight of male dairy calves led to a flexing of the national conscience, legislative change and renewed demand for humanely reared British veal, billy kids don’t get so much as a mention. The numbers involved are tiny by comparison – Defra says there are around 90,000 goats in the UK – but that still means a lot of billies going to meet their maker soon after their first bleat.
And that’s a terrible waste. Goat meat is damned tasty, but when was the last time you saw it at the high-street butcher, let alone supermarket? Unless you’re part of an immigrant community, the closest many in the UK get is walking past a Caribbean cafe with goat curry on the menu.
It’s no coincidence that many high days and holidays worldwide feature a feast of goat as their centrepiece, be that Sicilian roast kid with lemon at Easter or chilli-fried goat in Bali to break the fast during Ramadan. Goats are easier to raise than sheep (the two are just about interchangeable in culinary terms, though goat has a richer, meatier flavour and texture), they’re lower in cholesterol and fat than beef, pork or lamb – and high in protein and iron.
Why, then, do we let all this potential goat meat go up in smoke? “Lack of education,” says Richard Pemble of the British Goat Society. “UK consumers have become increasingly detached from the food on their plates – and they know next to nothing about goats. Until there’s greater acceptance of it in the marketplace, I don’t see much changing.”
That doesn’t help the likes of Atkinson – what is he meant to do with the 100 kids he’ll be lumbered with next spring? He thinks he has found a solution: he’s selling his boys to Cabrito, a new venture run by farmer Jack Jennings and chef James Whetlor taking unwanted dairy kids in the south-west to rear as free-range meat animals. Early signs are positive – though the business is just a month old, they’re supplying top kitchens around the country, from St John in London to Aumbry in Manchester; Jamie Oliver and Antonio Carluccio have tweeted about it; and diners are embracing it. “We put kid on the menu at Quo Vadis in early spring,” says chef Jeremy Lee. “Boned and tied joints braised with baby spring vegetables, plus faggots and livers, of course. It has sold at a nice, steady pace, putting a smile between the ears of cook and customer alike.”
“My boys feed off their mums for four or five days – we can’t use that milk anyway, because we don’t put antibody-rich colostrum in our cheese – then head off to Jack’s farm,” Atkinson explains. The scheme is a no-brainer for him, economically as well as ethically: “Kill them at birth, there’s no return – you may even have to pay someone to do it … Sell them to James and Jack, you get a few extra pounds, and the boys get to have a decent life for a few months.”
This may not be a viable model for commercial herds of up to 4,000 goats, but Atkinson is convinced it’s worth a go for small-scale farmers. “It provides an incentive to use the boys, rather than basically chuck them in the bin.”
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