Beginning in the 1500s, Spanish goats were brought from Spain to the Caribbean Islands. Then, from there, to the areas that would become the United States and Mexico. These foundation stocks were an undifferentiated Mediterranean type of goat that was once common in Spain but no longer exists. This adds genetic and historic importance to the Spanish goat breeds that evolved in the western hemisphere.
Goats flourished in the Americas. Valued as a ready source of milk, meat, and hides, they were taken everywhere the Spanish went and became an integral part of subsistence production across southern North America, Central America, and South America. The use of goats for meat was also important because it allowed cattle to be reserved for draft power, which was essential for crop production and transportation. Spanish goats were the only goats known across the southern U.S. and in most other parts of the Americas for over 300 years.
There were many regional types and strains, both domestic and feral, shaped by natural selection and geographic isolation. This changed with the importation of goat breeds from other countries beginning in the second half of the 1800s. The majority of Spanish goats in the U.S. were crossed with imported breeds for dairy production or were replaced by Angora goats for the production of fiber.
Today, there are relatively few purebred Spanish goats in the U.S. One obstacle to the use and promotion of these goats is that the term “Spanish goats” is also used to describe crossbred and nondescript goats of the Southwest. In the Southeast, Spanish goats are also called brush, woods, and scrub goats, and these terms may include both purebred and crossbred animals.
Many people still don’t understand that the Spanish goat is a pure breed, an easy mistake to make given the variable use of the term “Spanish” and the physical variability within the population. Fieldwork in the U.S. has been helpful in describing the various strains of Spanish goats and in encouraging the development of a formal network of breeders.
Interest in Spanish goats is increasing with the growth of the goat meat industry and with increased recognition of the breed’s production qualities. Spanish goats are hardy and rugged, thriving on rough forage and in difficult environments. Does are also known to be long-lived and prolific. The breed has secured a production niche in Texas, and the largest number of Spanish goat herds are found there. Even in Texas, however, it’s become common for Spanish goats to be crossbred for meat production, especially with the Boer, a meat breed from South Africa. This cross shows superb hybrid vigor, but the overuse of crossbreeding could threaten the survival of pure Spanish populations. Pure Spanish goats are also being crossbred for the production of cashmere, another useful application of their characteristics but one that also removes animals from the purebred breeding group.
The Spanish goat is a landrace and varies in appearance. The goats range in weight from 50 to 200 pounds, with the largest animals representing strains that have been selected over many decades for meat production. Spanish goats are usually horned, and the horns on bucks may be large and twisted. The ears are large, and they are held horizontally and forward next to the head. Though the ears may be long like those of Nubians, the ear carriage is distinct, and the straight or concave face is quite different from that of the Nubian breed. Spanish goats can be any color that is found in goats, and color variation, even in single herds, can be dazzling.
The Spanish goat is a global genetic resource that is unique to the U.S. The breed’s estimated population may be as large as 8,000 goats, but the challenges to its survival are imposing. For these reasons, the Spanish goat is a conservation priority in the U.S.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.