Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Bagot Goat – its history spanning 800 years

If ever a goat was an enigma, it is the Bagot Goat. It is neither a fibre goat nor a meat goat. It is, in fact, a rare breed species which, against all odds, has survived the centuries.

Here is its heartwarming story:

Author with rare-breed Bagot goat in England
The history of the Bagot goat is interlaced with images of knights on horseback, Kings and coats of arms, a story spanning 800 years where fact, legend and folklore are closely intertwined.

This rare and ancient breed, probably England’s oldest, survived for centuries under the protection of one aristocratic family. But later, because the breed was deemed to be of little intrinsic value, attempts were made to exterminate it.

By 1979 only 12 goats remained in the herd. Had it not been for the help of a dedicated group of enthusiasts the pure Bagot goat could have been lost forever.

When Richard the Lionheart returned from the Holy Land in 1194, the evil Prince John was Regent of England and Robin Hood and his Merry Men championed the poor from Sherwood Forest. This legend is well known. But almost unknown is the story that when Richard returned from the Crusades he brought back a few black headed goats from the Rhone Valley of Switzerland.

Two hundred years later, in 1380, a young King Richard 11, presented the herd of black and white goats to Sir John Bagot at Blithfield Hall in Staffordshire. These were released into Bagots Park, 800 acres of woodland on the edge of the great Needlewood Forest. Here beneath the majestic oaks the goats ran freely. With the Lord’s wild deer, they provided sport for the royal hunting parties and Bagot’s Park was their home for 600 years.

Joan Wanklyn, 1924–1999 - Goats at Blithfield Hall

For centuries legend and folklore allowed the long haired goat to live a protected life.  One story tells that long ago a poacher killed a Bagot goat and ate it. Immediately, he became very ill with a mysterious illness. After that the goats were untouched despite the poachers still stealing the Lord’s deer.

Unlike deer, by law, the goats were not classed as wild but, if the goats strayed onto local farmland, the Estate had to pay for any damage to the crops. It is said that the farmers may have encouraged the goats to escape onto their land in order to claim compensation.

In 1380, Sir John Bagot incorporated a goat’s head into the Bagot coat of arms. It became the family’s mascot. Sir John’s helmet, which rests in the Blithfield Church, has a goat’s head on the top of it. Displayed at Blithfield Hall is a magnificent set of goat horns. These measure almost 4 feet across.
Bagot family crest
But the legend, which closely unites the goats with the Bagot family from which they take their name, is that if ever the Bagot goat dies out, the House of Bagot will fall. This belief possibly ensured the survival of the breed.

Over the years the size of the herd fluctuated. As numbers increased some culling was done. In 1920 and 1954 a few Bagot bucks were sent to the Rhinog Mountains in Wales. Today some of the wild goats of the Rhinog have distinctive Bagot markings.

Swiss Blacknecked goat
But in 1939 it appeared that the fate of the Bagot herd was sealed. The Staffordshire Water Authority bought the Blithfield Estate. They planned to flood the old forest and grazing land to create a massive reservoir. Because the Bagot goat was considered to be of no commercial value, it was to be exterminated. Fortunately, with the outbreak of the Second World War construction of the reservoir was postponed but, the following year, the War Agriculture Executive issued the extermination order. Lord Bagot disputed this and the goats were given a reprieve, but the Court stipulated that the herd must not exceed sixty head.

At the end of the war, work on the reservoir resumed and in 1953 most of the land was flooded and the remaining forest was cleared for farming. The Water Authority had allowed the 5th Lord Bagot to continue living in Blithfield Hall but the stately home had fallen into disrepair. When he died, the 6th Lord and his wife, Australian born, Nancy Lady Bagot decided to buy it back together with some of the surrounding land. After considerable expense and extensive restoration, Blithfield Hall was opened to the public in 1956.

Of the hundred goats which had roamed the woodland, only twenty were kept. These were brought to the Hall by Lady Bagot. The remaining wild goats were caught and sold. A few went to private farms or zoos, others were killed. A group was sent to Hal Bagot, in Cumbria.

But the goats at Blithfield Hall were destined to live in a walled garden and small paddock near the house. Gone was the natural environment of the primeval forest. Their survival was in doubt and by 1979 only 12 goats remained. This gave the Bagot breed the dubious distinction of being, not only on the critical list of British endangered breeds, but featuring as the rarest of the rare breeds by the British Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Nancy Lady Bagot in 1952 in Coronation robes (
Nancy Lady Bagot felt she had no option but to entrust the remaining animals to the RBST in a hope that they would ensure the survival of the breed. Perhaps the old legend prompted her do this.

The Trust decided that the only way to protect the species was to increase their numbers as quickly as possible they embarked on a grading-up program using base stock of various breeds and crossing them with pure Bagots. After four crosses the goat was classed as pedigree. But a handful of enthusiasts could see that the true bloodline of the ancient breed was in danger of being lost.

The Bagot Goat Breeders Study Group was formed in 1987. Their aim was to promote the breed and maintain its integrity. Their approach was different to that taken by the Trust.

Over the previous 80 years culled animals had been relocated around England and Wales. It was to these sources of pure lines that the Bagot Study Group directed their attention. By tracing the history of the animals and selecting from the small closed herds, a breed register of pure stock was compiled.

In 1979 the Group converted to a full Breed Society affiliated to the British Goat Society. Today, thanks to the efforts of those enthusiasts, there are hundreds of registered Bagot goats. The secretary of the breed society said he doubted the Bagot goat would ever come close to extinction again.

Although there are no Bagot goats at Blithfield Hall today, a few years ago, Nancy Lady Bagot wrote, “I count myself very privileged to have known Bagots Park and to have seen the goats in their natural surroundings. It is very heartening that so many goat lovers are caring for these unique and historic animals.”

Nancy Lady Bagot was President of the Bagot Goat Breed Society. She died, aged 94, in 2014.

Seeking the truth behind the legend
Bigstock Photo
The story that the Bagot goat was brought to England from Switzerland hundreds of years ago, is not hard to believe when you consider the rare breeds which still roam the Alpine regions of Switzerland, Germany and Italy. 
The goats, which arrived at the time of the Crusades and came to be knows as Bagot goats, probably come from the Alps of southern Switzerland, north Italy and Austria.

Etching dated 1905

You only have to look at a Swiss Schwartzhal (Blacknecked or Wallis goat) of the Rhone Valley to recognize the colour markings and the horn structure to be convinced these animals were the likely source of the goats associated with King Richard.

To this day, black and white goats are found in the mountains of Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Germany.

Taken at the ''Bois de la Batie'', in Geneva, Switzerland. Permission={CC-by-sa-2.5}

The Valais Blackneck is found in the region of Valais, in southern Switzerland, and neighbouring areas of northern Italy. The largest concentration is in the area of Visp (Viège). At the end of 2013 the total numbers of goats of this type were a little over 3000 in Switzerland, with a few hundred in Italy plus only 100–300 head in Germany).

The Valais Blackneck is distinctively almost half black and half white. It is known by various names according to where it lives. In Germany it is the Walliser Schwarzhalsziege or Gletschergeiss; in France, Col Noir du Valais, Chèvre des Glaciers or Race de Viège; and in Italy, Vallesana or Vallese.
Post script

When I visited England from Australia several years ago, I happened across a handsome Bagot buck on a farm in the south and noted in my diary (see top picture): “What a magnificent animal. If I lived in England I would like to raise these rare breed goats”. It was not until later that I discovered just how rare it was. I first wrote about the Bagot Goat for The Goat Farmer magazine in 2000.
In 2014 I posted a blog about the the Bagot Goat and King Richard. This is a revised post. It contains updated material regarding the goat's origins and also some new pictures.)

In 2014, I published a Young Adult short story entitled King Richard and the Mountain Goat where fact and fiction have been melded together (author). 

Joan Wanklyn (1924–1999), painting of goats at Blithfield Hall as they would once have appeared. 
Bigstock photo - 2 x stencils and goats in Alps. 
Goat of Unknown Race. Taken at the ''Bois de la Batie'', in Geneva, Switzerland.{CC-by-sa-2.5} 
See also (2 pics =+ etching)

No comments: