BALLSTON “Come on, girls; come on,” Julie Ann Murray calls, and the goats amble across the grass toward her like a pack of friendly dogs making a beeline for a handout, the adults graceful and the kids a tad clumsy.
Twin 4-month-old females hang at the back of the herd, their color-coded collars showing which one is Sabrina and which one is Sadie. Their erect ears are a soft green from a recent tattooing.
These kid goats don’t know it, but their births will be celebrated when the San Clemente Island Goat Association counts the rising numbers of the rare breed. The association keeps track of the population of San Clemente Island goats, which number about 500 in the world, according to its website.
Murray owns 11 San Clemente Island goats, five of which were born this year at her farm, MackBrin Farm in Ballston. She’ll sell three of them this week to out-of-state farmers.
The rare breed is medium-sized and the animals have either mahogany fur or black and tan with a striped “badger” facial marking. Their disposition is gentle and they’re somewhat shy.
“They’re very deer-like,” Murray said. Her grown females weigh between 70 and 90 pounds and a full-grown male can weigh up to about 150 pounds.
Their long-ago origins are unknown, but the goats lived feral on San Clemente Island off the coast of California for about 100 years.
They breed more than once a year and often produce twins in the wild, according to the association’s website. On the small island, the population grew to at least 15,000 goats, and the U.S. Navy, which oversaw the island, said the animals were eating all the indigenous plants, some of which were endangered.
So, starting in the 1970s, according to the association’s website, the Navy allowed the goats to be trapped and taken to the mainland for various purposes, or hunted on the island. Thousands of goats were killed over the years as the remaining animals continued to breed.
saved from extinction
In the 1980s, as the Navy planned to shoot the remaining goats in an effort to eradicate them, the New York-based Fund for Animals successfully sued for permission to take the goats off the island, neutering the males as it did so, according to the website of a California breeder, Earth Spirit Preserve.
People interested in keeping the breed alive used male goats born to females that were already pregnant when they came off the island, the website states.
Perhaps because of its history living feral, the breed is hardy. And the goats’ milk has a high butterfat content, something that is prized by cheese producers, Murray said. Like all goats, these animals also can be eaten, though goat meat is not as popular in the United States as it is in other countries.
Also like all goats, their voracious grazing appetites can make them useful: they gobble up such unwanted plants as burdock, poison ivy and poison oak.
Murray got the goats about a year ago as a herd, and is still learning about them. She plans to learn about milking goats.
“I would like to try to make my own cheese,” she said.
The goats are only a few of the animals on her 56-acre farm. She has about 400, most of which are chickens.
Murray runs the farm full time, and owns it with her husband, Stu. The couple’s two children, Duncan, 14, and Tessa, 8, also help.
She lets the goats graze freely as much as possible, and at first let them all graze together in a big family group, but now splits them up by sex to control pregnancies.
The animals file into their respective homes in the barn at night, segregating themselves by sex, Murray said. The males spar a little but can still be together. Her herd sire, Chile, rules the farm yard as the dominant male.
origins a mystery
There aren’t very many San Clemente Island goats in the Capital Region, if any, outside of Murray’s farm. She’s the only area farmer listed on the San Clemente Island Goat Association website, and only one of two in the state.
The other farm is in Highland in the Hudson Valley.
So far, selling the kid goats to people who know about the breed is difficult, and breeders like Murray are trying to spread awareness. “If there’s enough people, we can get their numbers back,” she said.
If not, the breed may die out, its bloodlines bred with other domestic goats.
“If people don’t do what I’m doing, they’ll be gone in our lifetime.”
Stories about the goats’ origins have achieved legend status.
The most oft-repeated is that Spanish explorers sailing through the area in the 1500s and 1600s dropped the goats off as a food source for future sailors. The San Clemente Island Goat Association calls that a myth.
It’s not clear where the animals did come from or what other living goats are their closest relatives.
It’s believed to be a fact that the goats were brought to San Clemente Island in 1875 from Santa Catalina Island, which lies to the north, by San Clemente resident Salvador Ramirez, according to an article written by University of Illinois geography professor Donald Lee Johnson and published in the Journal of Mammology in November 1975.