The Arapawa goat is a breed of domestic goat whose ancestors arrived with European explorers or colonists in New Zealand, possibly as early as the 1600’s. The breed was originally only found on the rugged island of Arapawa, which is situated at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. The origin of the goat population on this island has often been associated with the expeditions of Captain James Cook. Historical records indicate that goats were released by Cook on the island in 1777. According to local lore the present goats are directly descended from those original goats brought by the British explorers. The goats are thought to be descended from “Old English,” a common goat breed in Britain in the 18th century. This breed is a likely candidate to have been brought by British colonists as it is an all-purpose family goat suitable to meet the challenges of founding new colonies.
In England, over time, the Old English goat slowly fell out of favor on small farms. The Old English breed eventually became extinct as more productive breeds became popular and the practice of keeping yard goats diminished towards the end of the 19th century. If New Zealand goat lore is true, then the Arapawa represents the last remaining examples of the Old English goat, and it has been conserved due to the relative isolation of the island. While the origins of the Arapawa goat will continue to challenge historians and biologists, phenotypical evidence and DNA evidence seem to support the hypothesis of the relationship to the Old English goat.
The Arapawa goat population thrived on the island without major threat for over 200 years, until the 1970s. At that time, the New Zealand Forest Service came to the conclusion that the goats were too damaging to the native forest and therefore had to be removed. In reaction to the news, Arapawa Island residents Betty and Walt Rowe stepped in with friends and volunteers and created a sanctuary in 1987. They began conservation work with 40 goats returned to domestication. It is largely through their efforts that the breed gained international attention and survives today. The Arapawa goat remains one of the rarest breeds. As of 2011 there are approximately 150-200 domesticated goats in the United States, and this is thought to represent about half of the global population. Dedicated breeders are also working with the breed in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Documenting the origins of the herd of goats released on Arapawa Island almost 250 years ago is important in understanding the genetic resource represented in the goats. In 2007 The Livestock Conservancy, through its Technical Advisor Dr. Phil Sponenberg, teamed up with the University of Cordoba and several Arapawa goat breeders to perform DNA analysis of the breed. The study found that the Arapawa goats are clearly distinct from other breeds. They are not Spanish as some scientists speculated, and the Old English connection may yet prove true. What is certain is that the hardiness and self-sustaining abilities of the goats make them a unique genetic resource.
Arapawas are considered medium-sized goats, with does weighing from 60-80 pound and bucks weighing up to 125 pounds. They have long hair and are predominantly black, brown, and white in varying combinations with many having badger stripes on their faces. Does typically give birth to twins with little to no birthing difficulties and possess excellent mothering skills from the start. The Arapawa is a non-aggressive breed, which, if handled early in life, makes an excellent family goat.
Plimoth Patuxet maintains a herd of Arapawa Island Goats. Look for them in the 1627 English Village, at the Nye Barn or in pastures around the grounds. Plimoth Patuxet helps to maintain genetic diversity in livestock through its conservation of rare and heritage breeds like Arapawa Island Goats. These heritage breeds were common in the past, but are in danger of becoming extinct today. For more information on rare and heritage breeds, visit www.plimoth.org or the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (www.albc-usa.org).
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