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The Iceland goat: past and present

Ó.R. Dýrmundsson

The Farmers Association of Iceland Bændahöllin IS-107 Reykjavík Iceland


The Iceland goat is a rare isolated breed of Nordic origin dating back to the settlement of Iceland over 1 100 years ago. There is no evidence of goat imports since that time and the only goats which have been exported were a group of six included in a cashmere breeding programme in Scotland in 1986. Historical evidence and records from 1703 onwards show that goats have been kept in all parts of the country albeit in small numbers. This goat population was on the verge of extinction a century ago and reached a maximum of nearly 3 000 in 1930. At present there are 370 winterfed goats in 47 flocks located across the country. The goats are mainly kept as pets and are highly inbred. Efforts are being made to market the meat in a few food stores and restaurants the skins for book binding and the milk as a health product on a small scale. The cashmere however has so far not been harvested for marketing. A state conservation grant available for individually recorded goats since the late 1960s has contributed to the maintenance of this endangered breed. Generally goats are found to be susceptible to the same diseases as sheep in Iceland. However scrapie has never been diagnosed in goats.


La race de chèvre Islandaise est rare étant donné qu'il s'agit d'une race d'origine nordique qui a été isolée et qui date de l'époque de colonisation de l'Islande il y a 1.100 ans. Il n'existe pas d'indication au sujet d'une importation de chèvres depuis lors et les seules chèvres exportées ont été un groupe de six faisant partie d'un programme d'amélioration du cashmere en Ecosse en 1986. Il existe une évidence historique et des documents depuis 1730 jusqu'à nos jours qui montrent que les chèvres ont été élevées dans toutes les parties du pays bien qu'en nombre réduit. Cette population de chèvres a risqué l'extinction il y a un siècle et avait atteint son nombre maximum de 3.000 exemplaires en 1930. En ce moment il existe 370 chèvres réparties en 47 troupeaux dans tout le pays. Les animaux sont tenus surtout comme chevreaux et sont fortement croisés. Des efforts ont été fait pour commercialiser en petite échelle la viande à travers quelques magasins spécialisés et restaurants la peau est utilisée pour les couvertures de livres et le lait comme produit plus salutaire. Le cashmere cependant n'a pas encore été bien commercialisé. Une contribution de l'Etat disponible pour chaque chèvre enregistrée depuis la fin des années 60 a permis de conserver cette race en péril. En général les chèvres sont susceptibles aux mêmes maladies que les ovins présents en Islande. Cependant la maladie tremblante n'a jamais été diagnostiquée chez les chèvres.

Keywords: Cashmere Characteristics Conservation Iceland goat Health Origin.


The Iceland goat is one of the native livestock breeds of Nordic origin brought to the country by the first settlers. Compared to cattle horses and sheep which are of great economic value much less attention has been paid to the small population of goats. This paper reviews briefly the available information on the characteristics of this rare isolated and small breed paying special attention to its conservation.

Origin and Distribution

It is believed that the goats arrived with settlers who came mainly from Norway around the year 874 A.D. (Adalsteinsson 1981) and there is no evidence of goats being imported since this time. A large number of place names in all parts of the country indicate goat keeping however in small numbers compared to sheep. Numbers have clearly fluctuated greatly normally being a few hundred head. The earliest recorded number is 818 in the first census in 1703 and the highest goat number ever recorded was 2 983 in 1930. The lowest numbers recorded were below 100 around 1890 after decades of severe climatic conditions and again in 1960 then partly due to culling together with sheep when the lung diseases Jaagziekte and Maedi/Visna were being systematically eradicated (Sigurjónsson 1955; Dýrmundsson 1988; Sveinsdóttir 1993; Sigurdarson 1996a). The only goats of Icelandic origin exported from the country were four female kids one male kid and one yearling buck in October 1986 for a cashmere breeding programme in Scotland (Dýrmundsson 1990). They have contributed successfully to the development of the Scottish Cashmere goat (Bishop and Russel 1994 and 1996; Rhind and McMillen 1994; Merchant and Riach 2003).


Table 1 summarises information on body and production characteristics of Icelandic goats and Figures 1
2 and 3 further illustrate their physical appearance. There is a great deal of variation in several characteristics. Although the goats are generally regarded as small animals they have a considerable variation in body weight. As is the case for other Icelandic livestock breeds of Nordic origin, the goats exhibit a range of fleece colours some 20% being white and 80% non-white (coloured) with several colours types such as piebald badger-face and grey patterns (Sveinsdóttir and Dýrmundsson 1994). Their inheritance has been reported on by Adalsteinsson et al. (1994c). Crossbreeding results from Scotland have confirmed that Icelandic goats yield cashmere of high quality. Although the amount produced is small the fineness of the fibre qualifies for superior grades (Millar 1986; Bishop and Russel 1994).

Table 1. Body and production characteristics of Icelandic goats.


Estimated ranges and means

Birth weight

2 - 3 kg

Mature body weight females

35 - 60 kg

Mature body weight males

60 - 82 kg

Carcass weight kids

10 - 18 kg

Carcass dressing percentage kids

40 %

Colour white

20 %

Colour non-white


Cashmere fibre percentage

25.4 - 44,6 %

Cashmere fibre weight

163 - 790 g

Cashmere fibre diameter

13.6 - 18.6 mm

Daily milk yield

0.5 - 1.0 kg

Lactation yield

150 - 200 kg

Gestation length

149 days

Kids born per doe mated


Barrenness percentage

12 - 15 %

Inbreeding coefficient

21 - 32 %

Sources: Adalsteinsson (1985) Adalsteinsson et al. (1994 a & b) Bishop & Russel (1994) Dýrmundsson unpublished data Eik (1993) Jónsson (1918 & 1932) Kristjánsson (1932) Millar (1986) Sveinsdóttir (1993) Sveinsdóttir and Dýrmundsson (1994).

Furthermore the Scottish results have yielded much useful information on the inheritance of fibre traits (Bishop and Russel 1996) and moulting (Rhind and McMillen 1996; Merchant and Riach 2003) in crossbred goats including the Icelandic genotype which has contributed in particular to the fineness of fibre in a new composite breed the Scottish Cashmere goat. The high level of inbreeding is presumably depressing both growth and reproductive rates however not to the extent that would be expected. Adalsteinsson et al. (1994a and 1994b) have suggested that this is due to longstanding inbreeding within many small goat flocks within the country rather than taking place evenly throughout the population as a whole. This may be compared to inbreeding in several lines of laboratory animals where those showing the least inbreeding depression continue to reproduce successfully. Thus in goats in Iceland many lines have died out due to a failure to reproduce while others have survived longstanding heavy selection. Both male and female Icelandic goats are normally horned. However a few are polled or have scurs small horn buds (see Figures 1 2 and 3) and it should be kept in mind that polled homozygous (PP) bucks are normally infertile due to abnormal testicular development (Adalsteinsson 1992; Sveinsdóttir and Dýrmundsson 1994).

Figure 1. A grey piebald horned adult buck.

Figure 2. A white horned adult doe.

Observations and goat records indicate that seasonal breeding activity commences earlier in the autumn in does than in ewes and most of the kids are born in March-May. Adalsteinsson et al. (1994 a and b) have demonstrated a clear age effect on fertility namely that barrenness is greater and kidding rate is lower in one year old females than older ones as would be expected. The limited data available indicates that fat protein and lactose contents compare favourably with values documented for milk of various other goat breeds (Sveinsdóttir 1993).


Around 1960 when the goat number had again fallen below 100 head there was a growing concern that the Iceland goat might become extinct. Important steps were taken through amendments to the Livestock Act of 1965 giving the Agricultural Society of Iceland (now the Farmers' Association of Iceland) the mandate to lead efforts to conserve the Iceland goat. State funds were secured from the late 1960s to pay an annual conservation grant for individually recorded goats. Recording sheets are sent to all goat owners in the autumn owners now numbering 47 and found in most parts of the country owning a total of 370 winterfed goats. Normally a 70-80% return rate is achieved qualifying those goats for the annual grant now amounting to 4 000 Icelandic krónur (45 Euros) per winterfed goat (Dýrmundsson 2003) covering approximately 60% of the feeding cost. The conservation grant now stipulated in the Agricultural Act of 1998 has clearly contributed to the conservation of this endangered breed. In fact over a number of years flock and goat numbers have been fairly stable at around 50 and 300-400 respectively (Dýrmundsson 2002). Goat owners are concerned about inbreeding and they are assisted in finding bucks and occasionally does from other flocks as unrelated as possible to their existing animals. The Farmers' Association of Iceland co-operates with the Goat Breeder’s Society of Iceland founded in 1991 in the common aim of conserving the Iceland goat. The Goat Breeder’s Society with a membership of 30 has made efforts to market goat meat and skins with some success. Furthermore it has been involved in increasing the number of polled goats by making use of AI and by establishing a nucleus flock on the farm of one of its leading members in west Iceland. Thus the polled goats have been saved from the extinction which was a real threat a few years ago and plans are now in progress to utilize this flock for commercial goat milk production. Experimental production of goat cheese in 1991 yielded promising results (Sveinsdóttir 1993) and it is felt that there is a niche market for goat milk and milk products in Iceland. Better utilization of the goat population by establishing small production units would indeed strengthen conservation efforts and perhaps lead to cashmere harvesting by shearing or by combing as has already been tried on a small scale.


It is generally assumed that goats are susceptible to the same diseases as sheep in Iceland and very little research has been devoted to goat diseases per se. A notable exception is a recent study on internal parasites in goats (Kristmundsson and Richter 2000). In their studies on both lungs and gastrointestinal tracts and on the faecal samples of 4-6 month old kids from several flocks the most prevalent parasite species were Teladorsagia circumcincta Nematodirus filicollis Nematodirus spathiger Trichuris ovis Trichostrongylus capricola Chabertia ovina Muellerius capillaris and Moniezia expansa.

Figure 3. A badgerface-piebald adult doe with a small horn bud (right) and her badgerface-piebald horned kid (left)

They concluded that the prevalence and abundance of the helminth species found were similar to what would be expected in Icelandic lambs in the autumn. In fact anthelmintics are applied in a similar way to sheep and goats in Iceland as are vaccinations against clostridial diseases and Johne´s disease (Paratuberculosis) as these diseases are found in both sheep and goats. The lung diseases Jaagziekte and Maedi/Visna were eradicated in Iceland in 1952 and 1965 respectively (Sigurdarson 1996a). There is no documented evidence available as to whether these diseases were found in Icelandic goats. Since 1978 a scrapie eradication scheme for sheep has been in progress involving the total extermination of all infected flocks from 1986 onwards. Good progress is being made (Sigurdarson 1996 b). Although scrapie has never been diagnosed in goats and animals other than sheep in Iceland the eradication policy has included all goats on farms where scrapie has been confirmed in sheep. Thus unfortunately some goat flocks have been lost. The same rules of restocking have applied to both sheep and goats and several of the farms have not been restocked. Moreover the same restrictions apply to the transport of breeding sheep and goats between districts in Iceland. As a result there is very limited scope for breeding work in this small population at present the main emphasis being placed on individual recording and measures against excessive inbreeding. It should also be kept in mind that only 12 out of the 47 flocks have 10 or more winterfed goats. In Iceland goats are kept in much the same way as sheep housed and fed mainly silage and hay in winter and grazed on extensive natural pastures in summer. They are hardy animals not plagued by many diseases and thus the goats in Iceland enjoy a good state of health.


Although goat numbers in Iceland have been fairly stable over a number of years the conservation of this small population into the future is a matter for concern. Inbreeding although not as deleterious as would be expected is a major challenge facing goat breeders in Iceland. Movement of goats between flocks normally bucks is very restricted due to the scrapie eradication scheme for sheep and this aggravates the situation. On the other hand it is clear that conservation efforts would be strengthened if they were combined with better utilization and marketing of goat products. Officially it is fully recognized that the isolated and endangered Iceland goat needs to be conserved. The state conservation grant for individually recorded goats is certainly a valuable support. Moreover both agricultural legislation and statements in Iceland’s country report to the FAO in 2003 (Ministry of Agriculture 2003) on the conservation and sustainable use of farm animal genetic resources provide a formal framework for further progress.

List of References

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