A passionate young woman and her family battle against cultural and legal obstacles to save a unique and endearing rare goat breed, the Icelandic goat. Her animals starred in a scene in Game of Thrones and won the affection of audiences worldwide. Her international crowdfunding campaign saved them from the brink of extinction. But her struggle did not stop there, as she strives to make her farm sustainable.
A beautiful white buck, Casanova, and 19 of his companion Icelandic goats, formed the goat cast in episode six of season four of Game of Thrones. In this scene, Drogon (Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen’s mightiest dragon) breathes fire over the herd and snatches up Casanova. Of course, this was only acting and computer animation. Casanova came to no harm. The director, Alik Sakharov, found the buck so charismatic that he couldn’t resist making him a star.
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In the real world, survival risks of the Icelandic goat have been less dramatic, but just as threatening. Marginalized by farming practices and cultural attitudes, this rare goat breed has been close to extinction twice. This would still be the case if it were not for the efforts of Jóhanna Bergmann Thorvaldsdóttir at Háafell Farm in western Iceland.
Why is the Icelandic Goat Endangered?
Jóhanna was born on the farm when it mainly raised sheep. Most Icelandic farmers, including her parents, perceived goats as naughty, bad, smelly and inedible. Sheep have been favored in Iceland for centuries. Goats were seen as only fit for poor people. However, Jóhanna sees them as an important genetic resource, productive livestock and lovable companions.
Icelandic goats originate from the settlement of the country around 930 CE, when they arrived with Norwegian Vikings and their captured British women. They have had 1100 years to adapt from their Norwegian roots to the particular environment of Iceland. Few animals have been imported since and there has been a ban on animal imports since 1882. The country’s isolation has resulted in tough, cold-weather animals and unique breeds of goat, sheep, horse, and chicken.
A severely cold period during the thirteenth century brought about a preference for sheep, due to the warmth of their wool and the high fat content of their meat. The goat population waned, dropping to about 100 head during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. A return to popularity for goats’ milk in seaside villages and small towns peaked briefly during the 1930s. This boosted the population to about 3000 head. But after the war, goat keeping was forbidden in urban areas, and the cultural stigmatization against Icelandic goats grew. In the 1960s, only 70–80 individuals were left. Somehow they managed to escape extinction through the few owners who kept them as pets. By the 1990s, there were still fewer than 100 head. These bottlenecks not only threatened their survival as a breed but also resulted in inbreeding.
Conservation Through Goat Farming and Crowdfunding
In 1989, Jóhanna left her nursing career in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, to move back to the family farm. She initially raised sheep and chickens, but soon adopted some pet goats when a friend was no longer able to keep them. As a lifelong goat lover, she was delighted to welcome them. In 1999, she rescued four hornless brown goats from slaughter. These goats added valuable genetic diversity to her herd. She could see the only way to save this breed was to find a market for their produce. She focused on building the herd and developing different product ideas. Frustratingly, regulations placed a ten-year quarantine on the farm after adopting animals from a different region. Undeterred, she grew roses, made rose jelly, gave tours, and expanded her agritourism ideas. But she was not allowed to sell any goat products for those ten years. Then, as she emerged from the restriction, the banking crisis of 2008 hit hard, and her bank withdrew funding.
In September 2014, the farm was to be put up for auction, and 390 goats, 22% of the total population of Icelandic goats, were destined for slaughter. Minnesota-born chef and food writer Jody Eddy had already promoted the farm through her cook book and culinary tour. Now she launched a crowdfunding campaign which raised $115,126 through 2,960 backers worldwide. This enabled Jóhanna to negotiate with her bank and continue her mission. “The goats and the farm are safe,” she said, “and we can carry on.”
Raising Demand for Icelandic Goat Products
Now she continues raising goats and selling their products, but the fight doesn’t end there. Despite seeking government protection for this rare goat breed, subsidies are very small unless the animals make a contribution to the general market. According to Ólafur Dýrmundsson of the Farmers’ Association, “What I think is the key to securing the future of the goat, and what would conserve the population, is to utilize the output of the goat. These products need to enter the general market. In Iceland the funding system for sheep farmers is based on productivity. If goat farmers were to enter that system they would have to prove their production value.”
The government is obliged to protect the Icelandic goat breed under the conservation agreement signed by Iceland at the UN Rio Convention in 1992. However, progress has been slow and market restrictions stifling. Jón Hallsteinn Hallsson, chairman of the Agricultural Ministry’s genetics committee, said, “On one hand we are concerned for the genetic diversity of the Icelandic goat. Then additionally this farm is in a unique position as the only goat farm in the country where there is any possibility of utilizing the products for the general market. We believe that serious innovative work has been done…”
Jóhanna has been actively developing new products and seeking new markets. But despite the support of experts and officials, the insular nature of the market poses huge obstacles. Restrictions on the sale of unpasteurized milk products apply to both imported and domestic products. This regulation stems from the fact that Iceland’s livestock are isolated by the confines of the island, and are therefore susceptible to foreign diseases, from which they have no immunity. There is an uncommonly low rate of livestock disease in Iceland, but this lesson was learned the hard way. After importing foreign sheep in 1933, a cull amounting to 600,000 head was required to control infectious diseases. The government perceives raw milk and its products as a great human health risk. Permission to market unpasteurized dairy products requires lengthy negotiations and tight controls. In 2012, an organic cow dairy, Biobú, gained a license to sell and export raw milk products. The road is long, but possible, as Jóhanna pursues her ambition of making goat cheese.
Making Use of the Whole Goat
On the other hand, Jóhanna enthusiastically promotes goat milk benefits. She explains how goats’ milk has helped infants and allergy sufferers. Her goats’ milk is used to make chèvre and feta cheese, transformed by an artisan dairy in western Iceland. Cheese and meat are much in demand. The family delivers to Reykjavik and has sales outlets in the city, including a delicatessen and several restaurants, including Michelin star restaurant DILL. A city that once doubted the edibility of goat is now keen to explore its delicacies. Local geothermic spa Krauma serves a platter of cured goat meats and feta. The family hold regular market stalls and run their own farm shop on site at Háafell Farm.
The shop sells creations from all imaginable parts of a goat: using milk, meat, fat, fiber and hide. “If you’re trying to save a breed, you have to use what they give,” explains Jóhanna. The shelves display crafts made from goat hide, cashmere wool, goat milk soap and lotions, homemade jellies and syrups, preserved sausages, and goats’ cheese. Goat milk ice cream can also be bought or served in the on-site café. The farm shop forms part of a larger initiative to attract tourism. Jóhanna and her husband, Thorbjörn Oddsson, opened the Icelandic Goat Center in July 2012. They offer tours of the farm, a talk on the history of the breed, cuddles with the goats, and a leisurely wander around the farm, followed by a tasting of their products and refreshments in the café. The recent tourist boom in Iceland has helped the family to get by. They had around 4000 visitors in 2014.
Cuddly, Friendly Goats
Tourists are amazed by the friendliness of the goats, and it is clear how much Jóhanna loves them all. The goats are not frightened to approach strangers. A cuddle with a baby goat is a highlight of every tour. These gentle creatures often fall asleep in visitors’ arms. During the summer, the goats are free to range around the farm’s pastures and the adjacent hillside. The valley enjoys a relatively mild microclimate which encourages grass to grow lush and green. The goats spontaneously gather together overnight to rest in a natural cave or in a barn near the farm. In the morning, they spread out over pastureland and the hillside in small groups of two to five individuals. Females prefer to stick together, accompanied by their kids. The does are known to develop firm friendship bonds. Males spontaneously form a separate group that does not join the females until the breeding season. Otherwise, males and females choose to rest, shelter and browse in segregated groups. The gentleness of the breed is notable. Despite their wild-ranging lifestyle, they readily come running for a cuddle from Jóhanna.
Icelandic goats are small, long-haired, white, with various black and brown markings. Their cashmere undercoats are very thick to protect them from the cold climate. When brushed out, the cashmere provides a beautiful, soft wool for making fiber and felt. This fiber is different from that of mohair goat breeds, like Angora and type A Pygora, which produce a soft, fine, silky thread. Cashmere is fine, very warm, and gives a halo effect to the wool. In the 1980s, Scotland imported Icelandic goats to create their own Scottish Cashmere goat breed by crossing with breeds from Siberia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.
Jóhanna’s passion for her goats and her determination to continue goat farming give hope for this rare breed, which now numbers approximately 900 head nationwide. The Icelandic Goat Center is approximately a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, through the remote and beautiful countryside of Thingvellir National Park, and could be combined with a visit to Hraunfossar waterfall. The center is open on summer afternoons, but the family welcome visitors at other times by arrangement. What a veritable treat for the gastronome and goat lover alike!
Icelandic Times, Háafell Goats and Roses
Government of Iceland Statement of Defence to the President and Members of the EFTA Court. 2017. Reykjavik.
Ævarsdóttir, H.Æ. 2014. The secret life of Icelandic goats: activity, group structure and plant selection of the Icelandic goat. Thesis, Iceland.
Originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.