Black Goats - what role (if any) for domesticates in rewilding?


I recently heard this story about the Black (aka Syrian) Goats in occupied Palestine:

A ban by Israel on herding black goats – on the pretext they cause environmental damage – is to be repealed after nearly seven decades of enforcement that has decimated the pastoral traditions of Palestinian communities.

The Israeli government appears to have finally conceded that, in an age of climate change, the threat of forest fires to Israeli communities is rapidly growing in the goats’ absence.

The goats traditionally cleared undergrowth, which has become a tinderbox as Israel experiences ever longer and hotter summer droughts. Exactly a year ago, Israel was hit by more than 1,500 fires that caused widespread damage.

The story of the lowly black goat, which has been almost eliminated from Israel, is not simply one of unintended consequences. It serves as a parable for the delusions and self-destructiveness of a Zionism bent on erasing Palestinians and creating a slice of Europe in the Middle East.

Basically the Israelis planted pine forests to cover up the villages they demolished during & after the 1948 war and make it harder for the refugees to return. Also it was a way of creating a more familiar landscape for Jewish immigrants coming from Europe, all served up in environmentalist language like ‘redeem the land,’ create ‘a greener world,’ and to ‘make the desert bloom’. They carried out a mass cull of the goats on the pretext that they were causing ‘damage’, including supposedly nibbling all the pine saplings, but with the ulterior motive of further attacking the Bedouin pastoral tribes making a living on the desert fringes, trying to force them into cities and slums to provide cheap labour. Of course the scrub built up in the goats’ absence leading to huge wildfires in recent times, like the Mt Carmel fire of 2010 which burned down just under 10,000 acres of the pine plantation.

It all plays into the landscape vs. human rewilding debate and the prickly questions about whether it’s possible to rewild the land without some forcible exclusion of people, especially destructive farming practices. Historically this has usually occurred after disasters like disease, war, ethnic cleansing or industrial contamination. On the other hand you have claims - even from farmers - that the human impact is beneficial for the ecology, in the black goat case by reducing wildfire risk and encouraging wildflower diversity via the tree & shrub browsing habits of the animal. I had a go at untangling the problem here, if anyone’s interested:

Also it brings up questions about whether livestock has a place in rewilding efforts. Does pastoralism inevitably deplete wildlife and damage ecologies, with the animals simply acting as machines to convert as much plant biomass into human biomass as possible? What about recent claims to virtue surrounding ‘holistic grazing’ practices, which also promise to ‘green the desert’, build soil fertility and even act as carbon sinks to mitigate global warming impacts? Rebecca Hoskings has suggested that farmers could use these methods to start acting as a ‘keystone species’ in their own right:

Something that is never mentioned, however, is that we humans entirely match the keystone species description and can work as one in a farmland ecosystem.

We, like the beaver, can dig ponds, create streams and slow water down, allowing it to penetrate the soil. We can and are working currently like a wolf; our form of grazing called ‘Holistic Planned Grazing’ means we move our flock around our land as if they were on migration. Suddenly from herbivores (namely sheep in our case) damaging the soil and creating green house gases, our sheep become part of a symbiotic relationship that locks down carbon and builds topsoil, a system that’s worked for millions of years.

We can also, like a lynx, push herbivores away from wooded areas allowing them to re-establish. We can also work like smaller animals planting nuts like jays and squirrels and allow trees to grow by spreading seed like song birds and encouraging diverse wild flowers to flourish.

Other middle roads might include the Loess Plateau restoration project, where various techniques were used to repair the severely degraded land, with the farmers themselves doing the work, supported by a large cash injection from the World Bank.

Somehow I’m still oddly underwhelmed by these visions. I suppose it’s the disconnect where the problems caused by excessive exploitation of the planet’s ecosystems by (civilised) human beings are met by solutions which involve… more exploitation of the planet’s ecosystems. It’s like the bogus trickle down economics theory where all sectors of society supposedly benefit from the wealth accumulation of a few capitalist entrepreneurs: if we increase the size of the planetary ‘pie’ by restoring ecosystems, greening deserts etc. then there will be space for the ever-increasing human billions AND wildlife populations living alongside them. Isn’t it more likely that livestock production will intensify and all those extra resources will get hoovered up by human mouths, further fueling the population explosion and leaving wild plant and animal species in just as bad a situation as they are today, if not worse?

Thoughts welcome :slight_smile:



On goats more generally, have a look at this paper (pdf):


Goats have developed in harmony with local conditions of climate, terrain, vegetation, and even pathogens over centuries in many areas, while they have been blamed of causing environment degradation in other ones. The paper summarizes the situation of goat’s population worldwide, the status of the breeds and the multiple implications of their conservation, the interactions of goats with other animal species (wild or domestic) and the main issues regarding the consequences of goat grazing from the environmental point of view. It underlines that most of the environmentally harmful effects of goat grazing arise from improper management practices at very high grazing pressures whereas goat grazing can be a useful tool for conservation if managed adequately. Moderate grazing pressures can be compatible with high levels of biodiversity and provide externalities, whereas high intensity at short term can be a valuable tool for weed control. Goat genetic heritage is seriously threatened and requires more studies and greater support from national and international institutions, in parallel with other efforts in rural development, especially for remote areas which hold an outstanding reservoir of livestock diversity adapted to the local conditions and managed by impoverished communities. A multidisciplinary approach of scientists, policy makers, rangeland managers and local communities is required for the design of future sustainable management plans.

There’s a section in there about the ‘Interaction of goats with wild herbivores’, finding in many cases around the world that the wild species can co-exist quite well with goat herds because of slight differences in range, forage preferences, even the height that they graze at. Population declines seem to happen when the pressure is combined with some other human activity like mining, arable farming or sport hunting. I can’t imagine that it would have no effect at all though. Introducing such a large, concentrated mass of domesticated animals is bound to affect pre-existing ecological relationships in all sorts of different ways, from soil bacteria up to high-end predators and scavengers. Whether this leads to a ‘sustainable’ outcome, or has a positive or negative overall effect is always going to be a subjective judgement: “Well yes, wildflowers have benefited but the trees and shrubs are taking a hammering … dung beetles and parasites are doing well but shade and moisture-loving insects are in decline … there aren’t any wildfires any more but fire-adapted species are no longer reproducing at replacement rates” etc etc.