Much like Noah, provisioning the ark for a fresh start in a world wiped clean, European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries included livestock on their journeys. The Arapawa goat, a small, shaggy line valued for its milk, meat, and skins, originated in this manner. The breed is descended from Old English milk goats that Captain James Cook, while exploring the South Pacific in 1773, left behind on Arapawa Island as a gift from King George III
For 200 years, the curly-horned ruminants browsed Arapawa Island—a craggy, 29-square-mile outpost off the coast of New Zealand—with minimal human intervention and free of predators. Back in Europe, their forebear, the Old English milk goat, was interbred with other goat breeds; in 1954, the pure breed went extinct. But on Arapawa, natural selection worked in the goats’ favor. The feral does bore twins, sometimes triplets, and their population exploded. “They haven’t been purpose-bred,” says Will Ober, vice president of Arapawa Goat Breeders USA. “They’ve been wild for 200 years—we can assume the less-hardy animals just didn’t survive.”
Three pairs of Arapawa goats were imported to the United States in 1994. They were brought to Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum of 17th-century Pilgrim society in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to populate its rare-breeds barnyard. The 32 Arapawa goats that Ober keeps on pasture in upstate New York trace their lineage to that original group of six.
While their comparatively low yields of milk and meat make Arapawa vanishingly rare, the thrifty breed is an excellent addition to a homestead. Does typically produce just half a gallon of milk daily and thrive on pasture and browse without the supplemental feed required by such large, specialized breeds as Boers (for meat) or Saanens (for milk). Does weigh in at less than 80 pounds, while bucks rarely exceed 125 pounds.
In the decade since he got his first Arapawa doe, Ober, who kept Saanens—a Swiss breed—as a youth, has never attended a birth. “It seems like they avoid kidding while I’m around,” he says, recalling nights when he slept in the barn to midwife his Saanen does, who sometimes had complications. “I’ve never had one die because I wasn’t there to help.”
Since the early 1970s, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has culled the feral goats on Arapawa to protect the island’s native ecosystem. Fewer than 500 of their descendants remain worldwide. In his latest census, Ober confirmed a breeding stock of just 145 mature does and bucks in the United States. “I’m keeping these animals,” he says, “because I believe in the value of genetic heritage.”