Breed: Australian Cashmere goats or Merrrit Cashmere goats.
Origin: Derived from feral goats (called bush goats) living wild in Australia since the eighteenth century or possibly earlier. In 1788 the First Fleet of British penal colony settlers landed in Botany Bay with goats on board. They had taken on four goats with a downy undercoat at the Cape of Good Hope. They brought goats for meat, fiber, and skin. Some of these later escaped or were abandoned when produce markets were low. Earlier European explorers may have also left on-board livestock when shipwrecked or landing on Australian shores, in the same way that Arapawa goats and Hawaiian ibex goats colonized those islands.
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History: In the early nineteenth century, cross-bred Angora/Cashmere goats were imported to New South Wales (NSW) to improve the fleeces of local bush goats. William Riley was keen to develop a fiber industry, although his ideas were not adopted by local ranchers for over a century. The gold rush from 1851 until the early twentieth century encouraged farmers to abandon their herds to seek gold. Many of the farmed flocks returned to a feral state. They moved up into harsh, arid country unsuitable for sheep, and eked out an existence on the impoverished land. However, some cashmere goat imports were recorded from India and Chinese Tartary during this time.
Cashmere Goats Bred from Feral Goats
Since 1953 bush goats have been used for meat, through hunting or rounding up for slaughter. In 1972, the Australian Government Research body CSIRO noticed that some of the herd at Brewarrina, NSW, grew a thick down, and they studied its quality. Cashmere is grown by most goats (except mohair goat breeds) as their winter undercoat. However, most breeds yield negligible quantities. In the late 1970s, some breeders attempted to develop the breed, but progress was slow until Dawson International Plc, a major Scottish importer of cashmere, set up a demonstration farm in 1980 to encourage Australian production.
Cashmere is mainly produced in China, as well as in Iran, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Political difficulties made supplies unreliable, and importers sought to develop producers elsewhere. In 1980 Dawsons bought all cashmere produced in Australia, followed by other major textile companies: Filati Biagioli (Italy), Forte Cashmere Company (USA), and finally Australia’s own processing company, Cashmere Connections. CSIRO participants formed a growers group, the Australian Cashmere Growers Association (ACGA), which has been breeding goats for optimum production, while retaining the fertility and hardiness of the original bush goats.
In the late 1970s, a small number of American farmers imported cashmere goats from Australia to raise wool-yielding animals, but little interest was shown until the late 1980s. When seeking suitable mates to cross the imported goats, similar quality goat wool was found on feral Spanish goats from Texas. However, many of these goats thickened their undercoats under managed conditions, suitable only for the cashgora market. From then on, North American cashmere goats were selected genetically to produce fine cashmere on good nutrition.
Hardy, Dual-Purpose Goats for a Luxury Fiber
Standard Description: Hardy and fertile. Sturdy, strong, well muscled, and well proportioned. Long, dense undercoat overall in midwinter. Horns are desirable as they dissipate heat during hot weather, which is important when growing a thick fleece.
Coloring: Solid colors and white are most desirable.
Height and Weight: If bred for meat, larger sizes and weight are favored.
Temperament: Animals that are easy to handle are desirable, so gentle handling from a young age is recommended. For herds left to range wildly, vigilance and quick reactions are important traits.
Productivity: Varies with herd, conditions, and individual, averaging four ounces of fiber per year (114g). A minimum of two ounces (60g) per fleece is acceptable, although some herds or individuals produce more than 17 ounces (500g). Softness and fineness are top priorities. Fibers must be 19 microns or less in diameter and the finest hairs are the most sought-after. Each fiber should exhibit a three-dimensional irregular crimp. The length of fiber should be at least 1.25 inches (32 mm) and of uniform length to be workable. Guard hairs should be easily distinguishable and of different length to the cashmere for easy removal. Hairs of intermediate thickness are difficult to sort, and only suitable for the cashgora market. Fiber diameter increases with age.
A Valuable Genetic Resource that Helps Clean the Planet
Conservation Status: Not protected, considered a pest in unmanaged feral herds. In 1998 approximately four million feral bush goats were estimated in Australia. About one million bush goats are processed for meat per year.
Biodiversity: Despite their origin from diverse sources, a high degree of inbreeding was found in the large population of Australian bush goats studied. Selective breeding with a limited number of sires will have also increased inbreeding. On the other hand, cross-breeding with Spanish or other goat breeds should improve genetic diversity. Australian bush goats were found to possess unique genes that would present a loss in biodiversity should the population go extinct.
Adaptability: Australian Cashmere goats are well adapted to the tough and sparse terrain of the Australian outback. Similarly, Spanish goats cross-bred with Australian stock will confer local hardiness to American flocks.
Quote: “Goats provide good weed control, which is important in the context of chemical weed control and herbicide resistance, have good ‘emissions efficiency’ (that is, kg methane per kg product) thus meeting our clean and green values, as well as providing cashmere fiber and capretto [kid meat].” University of Western Australia.
Australian Cashmere Goat Association, Merrrit Breed of Cashmere, Cashmere Goat Association, Capricorn Cashmere, LA Times.
Barker, J.S.F., Tan, S.G., Moore, S.S., Mukherjee, T.K., Matheson, J.L. and Selvaraj, O.S., 2001. Genetic variation within and relationships among populations of Asian goats (Capra hircus). Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics, 118(4), pp.213-234.
Jensen H.L. 1992. Cashmere Production in the United States. Leafy Spurge Symposium and Proceedings. Lincoln, NE. July 22-24, 1992. 5:7-9.
Presented by: Tamsin Cooper www.goatwriter.com
Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.