A desire to develop a sustainable goat farming business was the driving factor behind Katherine Walker, from County Down, Northern Ireland, choosing to undertake a Masters degree at Harper Adams University.
For her International Agri-Business and Food Chain Management thesis, Katie, as she is known to friends, is studying the “UK’s public perception of goat products from an enriched environment”. She is gathering consumers’ views about goat products, which can include milk, meat, cheese, and yoghurts – and specifically investigating the buyer’s attitude to animal welfare.
Katie’s interest in goat farming started during her placement year, part of her undergraduate degree at Harper Adams University – BSc (Hons) Bioveterinary Science. Working with a goat study, despite other people’s warning that goats are too much trouble, she found herself fascinated with them.
“I think a lot of people draw a lot of comparisons between them and sheep and really they are very different. They are more comparable in intelligence to horses and dogs. I think people are not aware of that and that’s why you have the problems with their reputation as trouble makers - it’s because they are bored.”
Beating this boredom, Katie hypothesised, could surely provide benefits to both the farmer, who would have less trouble to deal with, and the goats, who would be living more fulfilled lives.
This led to her undergraduate dissertation topic – investigating the benefits to be gained from providing enrichment to farmed goats. She found that providing enrichment, as simple as logs or a tyre suspended from the ceiling, to stimulate the goats’ minds and elevating their feeding positions, both had a positive impact on the herds welfare and potentially their output efficiency. “It’s not just a welfare issue – improving goats’ lives can improve the whole farm, and therefore the bottom line.”
The study, “comparing the impact of different environmental enrichment objects on domestic goat welfare assessed using qualitative behaviour assessment”, went so well that Katie was awarded the University’s 2020 RSPCA Animal Welfare Award for it.
Through her work, Katie, 23, discovered that there were very few commercial goat farms in Northern Ireland and none in her area – she spotted a gap in the market and had a strong belief that farming high-welfare goats was a sustainable business opportunity. Now she just needed to develop her business skills – enter the MSc.
“I thought ‘you know I could really make this goat farm happen’ but I have no business background at all as I’ve done sciences all my life. So, I thought if I wanted to start my own business in the future I thought it would be good to get a basis in it. Particularly with being from Northern Ireland and with Brexit hitting, I felt I needed to understand more if I was going to overcome any challenges ahead.
“I looked at the Masters and I wouldn’t consider going anywhere but Harper because I really like the student support. I was always able to go and knock on my lecturers’ doors and ask for help - when I talk to people from other universities they never get that amount of attention.”
Now, with a demanding schedule of modules under her belt, Katie is turning attention to her thesis. “There is definitely a market for goat products and I want to see more of them available - but I cannot get access to them. I want to help prove how they are versatile animals and see how people would be interested in buying goat meat and if not, why not.
“I would have loved to have been able to go out and talk to people more about it and see if I could go to a supermarket and approach people, but with Covid, that was not an option. Running the survey digitally has really affected my response rate - I’ve got so many young respondents at the moment 50% are under 30 and 2% over 60. I would have loved to get a paper version, get out there and collect a wider range of views. But I am doing my best in a challenging situation.”
Looking to the future, Katie hopes spend more time in New Zealand to broaden her farming experience after she has completed her Masters. In the meantime, Katie balances her studies and ambitions with working full time as a special needs classroom assistant in a primary school and when she is able, Katie pursues a variety of active pursuits including crossfit, running as well as paddle boarding and kayaking.
If you have a spare couple of minutes please fill out Katie’s survey: https://harper-adams.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/uk-publics-perception-of-goat-products-from-an-enriched-e