Latin America & Caribbean

Don't get my goat: The island farmers fighting livestock theft

A baby goat at Goatland Image copyright Gemma Handy
Image caption Goats can fetch thousands of dollars in Antigua

Hiding in a bush, draped in tamarind tree branches and waiting for a hapless goat to stroll by might seem an unlikely way to earn a dollar.

But grabbing a creature unawares while it is tucking into its favourite food is just one of the creative methods used by crafty thieves to snatch livestock in Antigua.

Theft of animals on the eastern Caribbean island is big business. And the traditional practice of allowing goats and sheep to roam free makes them easy prey.

Goats can sell for thousands of dollars each; two or three month's salary for many islanders. And it is putting local farmers out of business.

Goat snatching losses

Byron Lee's animals are kept penned but that has not deterred the crooks. He estimates he has lost $40,000 (£32,000) worth of livestock over the years; all the more galling in a country where $40 is a standard day's wage.

The last theft was keenly felt; his prize goat for which he had paid more than $3,000.

You may also be interested in:

"The criminals watch to see when I leave, before coming in and helping themselves," Mr Lee says. "A lot of farmers have just given up. I'm a second generation farmer and have been doing it all my life but I'm thinking about quitting too."

Given the nation's taste for goat curry the problems are unlikely to end any time soon. And not without an overhaul of conventional farming practices, says Lennox Francis, who is behind a pioneering new venture created with his British, Royal Veterinary College-trained wife Fiona.

Image copyright Courtesy of Goatland
Image caption Lennox and Fiona Francis are trying new approaches to goat farming
Image copyright Courtesy of Goatland
Image caption The Akbash dogs provide security for the goats

At Goatland, Simon would likely be the first to spot an intruder. A hulking mass of muscle, milky fur and sharpened senses, this majestic Akbash dog with imposing height, and his sister Simple, are tasked with guarding Mr Francis' 3.5-acre farm and its 150 cloven-footed residents.

While Simon diligently scouts the perimeter, Simple watches her flock, a silent but steadfast sentry.

The electric fences and security cameras are an equally rare sight on Antiguan farms.

From poop to power

But Goatland's fresh approach to agriculture goes beyond its savvy surveillance systems.

Set on a former sugar plantation, it is eco-friendly throughout and more than half the creatures here have been hand-reared. The goats' two-storey "home" with solar-powered lighting is constructed almost entirely of upcycled shipping pallets, slathered with waste engine oil to preserve the wood.

Image copyright Gemma Handy
Image caption Old pallets were used to build the goat shed

Daily poop collection might not sound an enticing chore but it makes for a cheap, efficient and readily available source of energy. Each night, the faeces are loaded into a bio-digester that produces methane to power a cooking stove for staff.

Even better, the slurry created is an excellent organic fertiliser, says Mr Francis, gesturing to an adjacent field abundant with mango and soursop trees, avocado seedlings and coconut palms.

A handful of Goatland's other inhabitants will not be going anywhere near the abattoir. Bambi, the sole fallow deer, was brought to Mrs Francis' veterinary surgery from Antigua's sister island Barbuda with a broken leg after Hurricane Irma.

And Bob the Friesian bull, attacked by dogs at two weeks' old and nursed back to health, will also live out his years here.

Mr and Mrs Francis plan to develop a unique breed of goat, hardy enough to withstand the drought-prone climate which poses additional headaches for Antigua's embattled farmers.

For Mrs Francis, originally from Watford, England, the project followed extensive research to identify the best goat genes for the climes, and training in artificial insemination.

"My vision is to provide a supply of a superior breed stock of goat to Antiguans who wish to go into livestock farming, and to showcase a production method that's sustainable and profitable here," Mrs Francis, who also makes soap and cheese from the animals' milk, says.

Low-maintenance New Zealand Kiko goats, like the sturdy-looking horned couple nicknamed John and Tina, are being bred with local varieties, including some from the country's uninhabited third isle, Redonda.

Image copyright Gemma Handy
Image caption John and Tina seem right at home in Antigua
Image copyright Gemma Handy
Image caption The goats are hand raised

If successful, Goatland could help reduce Antigua's reliance on costly meat imports which topped $20 million in 2017.

Training the next generation

Training the next generation of farmers will be critical and visits by local schools are encouraged.

"We're trying to get children interested in agriculture," Mr Francis explains. "We're meat eaters in the Caribbean; everyone loves their curry goat and baked lamb. But someone has to look after those animals, and that means hard work.

Image copyright Gemma Handy
Image caption Lennox and Fiona Francis are keen to pass on their knowledge to youngsters on the island

"Farmers use so much energy searching for their animals when they let them roam," he continues. "Plus, wandering creatures cause road accidents and are always impacting someone else's garden or crops."

Owalabi Elabanjo, from the ministry of agriculture, hopes the proposed introduction of identification cards for farmers will bring greater control over the largely unregulated sector.

Educating local businesses about the requirement to see the cards before buying meat might deter people from becoming accomplices to the illegal trade, he says.

"Livestock theft has been going on for decades. I don't believe there's a single farmer in Antigua who hasn't been a victim," Mr Elabanjo adds.

"The country doesn't yet produce enough goats to meet our demands but with better regulations, farmers could focus on production and help reduce our import bill. It would also mean they make more money and have a better life."

More on this story