By Samuel Newhouse
Motorists cruising down Flourtown Road in their 21st century vehicles may be surprised to see a centuries-old endangered species of goat gazing back at them from the pastures of Erdenheim Farm.
They are Arapawa goats—one of the rarest breeds of goat in the world, whose population is being slowly expanded by preservationists including historic Erdenheim Farm in Lafayette Hill.
“The history of the Arapawa goat is fascinating,” said Dan Lurie, Erdenheim’s farm manager, comparing them to more common breeds of cow that live on the farm. “There’s millions of Black Angus in this country alone. Worldwide, there’s about 500 of these goats.”
These rare goats are not like typical endangered species whose populations have been decimated by deforestation or poachers. The Arapawa is one of the last living descendants of the Old English milch goat (or British primitive goat), a common meat and milk breed that some sources say were introduced in England and Ireland 5,000 years ago, all of which but disappeared in the UK by the 1950s as farmers began to favor more productive, non-indigenous breeds.
The Arapawa draws its name from an island of New Zealand–where some historical records say explorer Capt. James Cook left some of his old English goats during his expeditions around the world in the 1770s, either as a gift to the Maori natives or a source of food on a future visit.
But the goats thrived on the island as a feral herd, and today, they exhibit more characteristics of animals from the wild than the tamer breeds of goats that are more common.
“They’re just stunning goats, with a great diversity of coloring and markings,” Lurie said.
After about two centuries, New Zealand authorities sought to reclaim the goat’s island for its native flora and fauna species. Rare-species activists and a goat-loving couple who lived on Arapawa Island fought to preserve the breed, and helped create a conservancy to protect remaining specimens.
New Zealand to Philadelphia:
The few hundred Arapawa left are now protected and bred at locations around the world and in the U.S., overseen by the Arapawa Goat Breeders USA association.
The Philadelphia Zoo is currently helping to preserve and breed Arapawa goats. After two doelings were born in the summer of 2016, the Zoo decided to send them up to Erdenheim that autumn.
In August 2018, the Zoo received Crowley and shipped him up to Erdenheim as well.
“They sent Crowley up here, and genetically, he was a perfect match to mate with Venus and Basil,” Lurie said. “With the small numbers, you watch the genetics really closely.”
Last spring, three kids were born–Diana and Zeus, the progeny of Venus, and Basil’s daughter Tigger, doubling Erdenheim’s Arapawa population.
This goat project is being operated under the Erdenheim Farm Foundation. Lurie is still managing who lives where and who stays with who. And indeed, some of these rare goats get to pasture out near Flourtown Road. They’ve attracted some attention from the surrounding community, and a group of students from a Springfield Township High School zoology elective designed and built a wooden enrichment structure for the Arapawa to use.
“We’re just hoping to preserve this unusual breed, increase their numbers and promote awareness of this rare breed,” Lurie said.
Actively farmed since the days of William Penn, and known as Erdenheim Farm since 1765, Erdenheim is one of the area’s oldest continuously working farms, with its farm stand offering fresh produce, honey, multicolored eggs laid by the farm’s chickens and beef and lamb. The Arapawa are the latest addition to a diverse farm family that already includes Cheviot and Dorper sheep, Black Angus, Belted Galloway and Highlands cattle, some 350 chicken with breeds including Plymouth Rocks, White Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds and Ameraucanas, and a family of Sicilian donkeys.
Erdenheim’s operations are also steadily growing more sustainable with animals eating local grain, hay and straw grown on-site, and large-scale composting to accommodate all of the farm’s waste.
“Each year we improve, we make things more sustainable and local,” Lurie said.
This year, the farm is offering classes in conjunction with the Morris Arboretum and they will be launching a program soon to train docents to lead tours in the future, so visitors can see the farm’s operations and animals up close.
Erdenheim Farm’s farmstand, at 5051 Flourtown Road, is open Tuesdays 12-2 pm and Saturdays from 8-11 a.m. Visit erdenheimfarm.com to learn more.