The Mysterious Goats of San Clemente Island
San Clemente Island Goat Buck – painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel 60 cm x 76 cm
Off the coast of Southern California there is an archipelago called the Channel Islands which consists of eight islands and spans some 250 km from San Miguel Island in the north to San Clemente Island in the south. The Channel Islands are some of the oldest inhabited areas in North America – at least thirteen thousand years – and were continuously inhabited by the indigenous population until the early nineteenth century. The first Europeans to see these islands were Spanish explorers. Juan Cabrillo claimed the islands for Spain in 1542. On some of the islands, these explorers left behind goats as a food supply for the sailors, should they return. And the goats, behaving as goats do, adapted to their arid island home and bred amongst themselves for centuries until there were thousands of them.
The Californian Channel Islands (Wikimedia commons)
Quite a story, isn’t it? If only it were true. Well, most of it IS true, except for the part about the goats.
Let’s start again.
For a long time, the story about Spanish explorers leaving the goats on the island was believed to be true. Then archaeological research caught up with the mythology about the place and showed there was no physical evidence to support the story. Indigenous people had inhabited the islands continuously until the early nineteenth century, yet no goat remains were found in the middens at archaeological sites.
In the early nineteenth century, sheep ranchers from what was then Spanish California began to bring sheep to Santa Catalina Island. The sheep herders also brought along some goats to act as ‘lead’ animals for the sheep since goats will more willingly follow humans around than sheep will.
By 1848 the United States had taken California and the Channel Islands from Mexico. Californian ranchers continued to graze sheep on Santa Catalina and San Clemente. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, some of the lead goats got loose on Santa Catalina, and, behaving as goats do…soon there were thousands of goats there. But that doesn’t explain how goats got to San Clemente. The distance between the two islands is about 54 km, and, yes, goats CAN swim, but to swim across 54 km of open ocean? Probably not.
Photo of Salvador Ramirez by J. S. Dixon, 1920.
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkley, California (ecoreader.berkley.edu)
In 1920 an ornithologist named Joseph S. Dixon went to the Channel Islands to study wildlife. During his time on Santa Catalina and San Clemente, Dixon met Salvador Ramirez who had worked on Santa Catalina as a shepherd for many years. In 1875, with permission of his employers, Ramirez introduced a pair of foxes to the ecosystem of San Clemente Island. And he also claimed to have introduced some goats.
J.S. Dixon’s field notes from 1920 showing entry for arrival of goats.
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkley, California (ecoreader.berkley.edu)
So it seems that the mystery of how the goats got to San Clemente has been solved. The more interesting question, though, is where did the goats come from in the first place?
A 2007 DNA study conducted by the Livestock Conservancy and the University of Cordoba in Spain showed that the San Clemente goats are genetically remote from other extant Iberian breeds. So they are not Spanish goats and are not related to the other goats in the region which are descended from the herds on the mission farms of California. A further large DNA study of several Creole goat varieties (Creole goats are mixed-breed and landrace goats descended from the various goats brought to the Americas by Europeans) was published in 2017 by researchers in Spain, Portugal, the US, and several South American Countries. San Clemente goats were among the goats studied and were found to be both highly inbred and, yet again, genetically unique. The results of the genetic analysis supported the idea that the San Clementes were indeed an old population left in isolation for a long period of time. But they are not related to any Creole goat variety found in North, South, or Central America. They are also genetically very different from commercial breeds such as Nubians, a breed originally from the Middle-East and North Africa which is widely distributed. The origin of the goats of San Clemente remains a mystery.
The Island of San Clemente was taken over by the US Navy in 1934. Without pressure from predators, the goats proliferated on the island until the 1970’s when their huge number (15 000 +) made them a threat to the island’s rare plants and other wildlife. To protect the ecosystem, the Navy began an extermination program to eradicate the goat population. (The goat population on Santa Catalina had already been reduced by hunting.) In the 1980’s when some 4000 goats remained on San Clemente, the Navy planned to rid the island of the remaining goats by shooting them from helicopters. This stirred the ire of animal welfare groups, one of whom (Fund for Animals) succeeded in getting a court injunction to stop the aerial slaughter. Fund for Animals proposed trapping and relocating the goats instead and volunteered to remove all the goats from the island. They were able to remove about 3000 goats between 1985 and 1986.
Many of the goats were adopted as pets. Many males were neutered because Fund for Animals actively discouraged breeding the goats. Fortunately a few small herds were saved and there is now some renewed interest in the breed, particularly since their unique genetics have come to light.
San Clemente Kid at Rarefield Farm, Dalkeith Ontario (Photo © Judith Sevigny RarefieldHeritageFarm )
San Clemente Island goats are small, although they are larger than dwarf breeds. The males weigh around 45 kg, the females closer to 35 kg. They are fine boned and are often described as deer-like in appearance. Their coat colour is mainly reddish with a black ‘cape’ on the shoulders and neck, and black markings on the face, legs, and tail. Both sexes are horned, with the horns of the bucks often becoming very large. The does give birth with ease and are excellent mothers. They are much loved for their docile temperament. Both males and females have ‘low odour’. Although they are small, San Clementes are considered a dual purpose breed, used for both meat and milk. The milk is especially desirable because it is largely free of the ‘goaty’ smell which many people find objectionable. Additionally, their unique genetics make them an excellent option for crossbreeding with other commercial breeds. There are currently a few farms raising the goats both in Canada and in the US, the largest of which is a herd of over two hundred San Clementes located in Nebraska. With some seven hundred San Clemente goats left world-wide, their status remains critical.
Sources: The San Clemente Goat Foundation (www.scigoatfoundation.org); Mother Earth News Breed Profile: San Clemente Goats (Video, www.motherearthnews.com);
San Clemente Goat – The Livestock Conservancy (livestockconservancy.org);
Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encylclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry, Yale University Press 2001 ; Genetic diversity and patterns of population structure in Creole goats from the Americas, in Animal Genetics, Immunogenetics, Molecular Genetics and Functional Genomics, doi: 10.1111/age.12529, 2017 (helpfully translated from the science by Leslie Ordal)