No Longer Israel's Black Sheep: Israel to Reintroduce Syrian Goats to Its Forests

Considered essential for preventing forest fires, Israel on way to repeal law that bans goat grazing in forests after 67 years

A goat for sale for sale at Muslim Eid Al-Adha holiday in Jakarta, Indonesia August 30, 2017.

Israel’s Cabinet is backing efforts to reintroduce the black goat, also known as the Syrian goat, into the country’s forests, woodlands and nature reserves as a way to regulate natural vegetation and prevent forest fires after banning them from grazing there almost 70 years ago for being “harmful” for the growth of forests and fauna.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation agreed to a repeal of the 1950 Plant Protection Law, also known as the “Goat Damage” law that defines the goat as harmful to forests and woodlands.

The law set restrictions on goat herding and forbade bringing the animals into forested areas or nature reserves. For decades it has been enforced by the so called Green Patrol, the enforcement unit of the Nature and Parks Authority. This led to a drastic drop in the number of the goats. On Mount Carmel, for example, in northern Israel, their number dropped from 15,000 about 45 years ago to just 2,000 in 2013.

But in recent years the attitude toward the goat has changed. Various studies have made it clear that the black goat, and goats in general, perform an important role in regulating the quantities of natural vegetation. Espeically important is the role they have in thinning out vegetation that could serve to spread fires.

“I decided to restore the goat’s lost honor,” said MK Jamal Zahalka (Joint List) who sponsoerd the bill to repeal the law. “Even today there are areas in which goat grazing is still essentially illegal, so I thought it would be proper to make all this activity legal. I’m pleased that both the agriculture minister and the justice minister support this too.”

“We decided to support the repeal of the law because goats are an important factor in fire prevention, and we want to encourage the act of grazing,” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel said. “This must be, of course, in appropriate areas and during appropriate periods of the year.”

Ariel noted that all herding activities are conducted with veterinary supervision and the management of herd owners.

Over the past two years the Jewish National Fund and the Nature and Parks Authority have been trying to encourage herding in areas prone to fires, particularly in the Jerusalem hills and the Carmel forest. In the region there is seasonal herding by Bedouin, but herding is also being encouraged in farming communities.

A study recently conducted for the Environmental Protection Ministry by researchers from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and the Agricultural Research Administration examined how grazing helps thin out areas in which numerous pine seeds have accumulated, as is common after a fire. The study showed that grazing contributes to the reduction of these seeds, preventing the regrowth of pine trees that accelerate the spread of fires.

Goat herding remains common in the Mediterranean region, among other purposes, as a means of fire prevention. But in some areas it is dwindling as herders don’t always find it economically worthwhile. And in several countries in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya, the authorities are trying to revive goat herding.