Photographing Goats is Easier than People
I’m spending my last few weeks in this house, as we are moving away. I have a list of sixty photographs that I want to take before I do. Some have been easy: a hoopoe, a wild iris, the view from the top of the hill. Some require a lot of luck: a bird of prey, a wild orchid. And one that I’d just about given up on was the goats.
The hills behind our are a large sprawl of scrubby plants and dirt tracks, primarily populated by dog walkers and kids on motorbikes. There’s a few farmers, I think, who intermittently feed their animals in the area. I’ve seen two men on horseback with a herd of cows. There was a large herd of goats that I walked straight into. The three most competent dogs in the world spotted me and swiftly herded me away from the goats back to a path heading away, making it clear that they wanted me to disappear and now. The man with them never even knew I was there, it was handled before he came near.
However, since I’d started the challenge in January, I’d not seen a single goat, not even from the distance, not even the faint jangle of bells from a distance. I was ready to give up, wondered if I should replace that item with another.
Until today. I was just at the beginning of the path, still surrounded by the trappings of civilization, when I saw a dozen of them milling around. As I approached, they ran in two different directions. I looked around but there was no sign of the rest of the herd, let alone any dogs or anyone herding them. I didn’t like to continue forward and scatter them worse when I had no idea where they were supposed to be. I turned back in order to take another path which would end up at the top of the same hill.
As I made my way back to the junction, I found the rest of the herd. A hundred goats streamed down the hill. Over the brow of the hill came a broad-shouldered middle-aged Spaniard wearing a high visibility vest and an iPhone in his hand. The goat herder of the future.
He smiled and walked down to me and said something. His Andalucian accent was too thick for me to follow and my goat-herding vocabulary is pretty much zero. I smiled and nodded and hoped that was an appropriate response.
He seemed happy enough. His dogs ambled over to me. They were ancient souls; I could almost hear their bones creaking. The fading eyes looked up at me good-naturedly. I did not believe either of them had successfully controlled a herd of goats in many years. I was beginning to understand why they were everywhere.
I let the dogs sniff my hands but refrained from petting them, not sure if one should cuddle a working dog.
“They won’t do anything,” he said in slower Spanish. “They look ferocious,” I countered, and we both laughed.
“I was wanting to go up that way,” I said, pointing at the path full of goat.
“Oh. Go on, then.”
I looked at the goats and then at him.
“Oh, don’t mind them!” He laughed and said something else which I didn’t understand. Still, it was clear he wasn’t concerned about my spooking them.
I started up the path when he called up after me. “There’s one with a baby up at the top of the hill,” he said.
“I’ll watch for it,” I called back. I looked round but saw nothing but the big milking goats ambling in all directions. I looked back at him. He smiled and pointed that I should keep going.
How, I wondered, could he know where one specific goat was in this mess?
As I hit the ridge of the hill, I saw. The goat in question had just given birth. She was licking her kid clean as it unsteadily tried to rise to its feet and make its way to her low hanging udder.
I was entranced. I stood there for fifteen minutes, watching the pair as the tiny goat went from slick to fluffy and finally managed to get a decent drink of milk.
The mother goat looked up at me now and again to ensure that I wasn’t getting any closer but didn’t mind my presence or my camera.
I was tempted to cancel my entire walk and spend the afternoon with the goats — and I would have, if I’d been able to hold up my end of a conversation with the goat herder. But knowing I was only understanding half of what he said, I decided that I was better off continuing with my original plan and walking around the back roads.
I was returning home on the only road with traffic when I saw the goats again.
The herd looked even bigger this time as they scrambled down the hill into the middle of the road. A car idled in the middle of the herd, flashing its lights. The goats were not the least bit bothered. The driver eventually inched forwards with a combination of patience and bravado. The goats did move out of the way as it rolled forwards but then those coming down the hill seemed not to grasp that it was moving and darted directly in front the car, causing her to have to stop again. Eventually she broke clear of the herd and drove past me.
The two dogs plodded over to me, happy to see someone they knew. The bigger one leaned against my leg and as he really didn’t look much like he was working hard, I patted his head. He looked up at me with tired eyes and leaned harder.
I scanned the herd, wondering what had happened to the tiny newborn. It didn’t seem like it could make it down the rough hill that the others were still scrambling down. They were moving too fast for its unsteady little legs as they fed along the side of the road, clearly knowing where they were going (the dogs helped not at all).
The Spaniard in the high vis jacket appeared further down the road, having chosen the safer path rather than stumbling down the hill after his goats. He no longer had the iPhone out: in his arms he carried the baby goat.
He came up to me so I could get a closer look. I wished I had the words to tell him how fucking adorable he was but I guess it was probably for the best that I was limited to, “Oh, the baby is very sweet.”
He asked me something, holding the kid out towards me. Did I want to hold it? Carry it down the hill for him? Pet it? Take it home? I had no idea but smiled winningly and scratched the baby goat between the ears. The man looked at me a bit oddly but smiled back.
Not wanting to make any further faux pas, I said goodbye and made my way up the hill.
The picture I wish I’d taken was him holding that goat so carefully in his arms while the goats led the way down the hill. But I didn’t dare ask — I wasn’t sure how to get the photo I wanted and I needed time to set up my camera and I’m no good at portraits. It was just all too difficult and too confusing.
I regretted it immediately. Still, there were a dozen reasons not to run after him and ask to take the photograph but they all came down to the same stupid questions. What if he said no? And if he said yes, what if I didn’t take a good photograph?
I turned, changing my mind, and got my camera out. It was too late.
The photograph I wish I had taken would have shown the goat herder, smiling, with a new born goat in his arms, walking with his herd to get them home before sunset. If I could have gotten his iPhone in the shot, it would have been even more perfect.
Maybe next time, I’ll be brave enough to ask.