Without doubt the most interesting group of goats living in the wild in New Zealand is that found isolated on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds. They are a relatively small breed (smaller than modern milking breeds) and come in a variety of colours – patterns of white, fawn, brown and black being common – and they usually have distinctively patterned faces. The males have widely sweeping horns, the females shorter backward-pointing horns.
It is widely believed that these goats are a surviving remnant of the Old English breed, possibly descendants of a pair released by James Cook in 1773. A recent study of historical records made by Alison Sutherland that can be seen on the New Zealand Arapawa Goats website makes a convincing argument for this early origin.
In 1839 a visitor to Arapawa Island reported goats being present in numbers at the Te Awaiti shore-whaling station.
DNA analyses undertaken in Spain in 2007 indicated that the Arapawa goats were a genetically important breed in their own right and only distantly related to a number of other breeds investigated at the time. Unfortunately, no DNA material of the Old English goat was available for comparison.
The goats of Arapawa Island have never numbered more than a few hundred, and were always subject to intermittent hunting. In the 1970s they came under the threat of eradication when it was thought that they were seriously damaging the island’s native forest. As no acceptable proof could be produced of their antiquity or rarity – or of any immediate commercial potential – a programme of severe culling was instigated.
Fortunately, the dedicated efforts of one Arapawa Island resident, Betty Rowe, ably assisted by her family and volunteer helpers, thwarted to some extent the efforts of the cull team, with the result that a small but viable population of Arapawa goats was saved. Her efforts on behalf of the goats continued for thirty-five years until her death in 2008.
A number of these goats have been removed over recent years and are now being bred by a few enthusiasts in various places throughout New Zealand. In 1993 a breeding group was exported to USA (see Arapawa Goats in the USA) and another to Great Britain in 2004 (Arapawa Goats Arrive in the UK). The total number of Arapawa Island goats in domestication worldwide is thought to be less than three hundred.