The region in which we live – the Poitou-Charentes – is primarily an agricultural area, and one of its best-known products is goat cheese. It comes in a variety of tastes and forms, from soft mild creamy curds, gooey rolls covered in ash or wrapped in oak leaves, through pyramids and onto small, withered brown discs that stink of ammonia and burn your throat. There’s something for nearly everybody – except confirmed goat cheese haters.
One of the most charming sights when we arrived nearly twenty years ago was Madeleine, the tiny ancient goat lady from the next hamlet. Bent over like a comma, with a cape over her shoulders, her knitting in the basket of her bike, a folding stool strapped to the pannier and her Collie frolicking beside her, she led her little band of goats down the local lanes, where they could graze from the roadsides and among the fields of stubble. In all weathers she would find a suitable area, set up her stool, dig out her knitting, and sit for a few hours while the goats wandered around nibbling contentedly, before it was time to turn for home and the milking shed.
Hélas, grazing goats are a rare sight now. There was a flock just up the hill from us until last year, but they seem to have vanished and been replaced by cattle.
But that is not to say that there are no goats in the area. On the contrary, there are more than ever. It’s just that you won’t see them unless you go and visit one of the gigantic barns that have sprung up in what were once fields of crops. For now goats spend their entire lives inside those barns. Pampered, knee-deep in fresh straw, heated, vaccinated, fed on cereals designed to give optimum milk yield. As they are born into those conditions and know nothing else, I suppose they are happy enough with their lot; being herd animals they have plenty of company of their own kind. But when I watch our two pet pygmy goats nibbling at the hedges, rolling in the sand and chasing each other through the fields, I feel for the animals that will never know that pleasure.
Recently a gigantic complex of barns has been built just outside town. I asked one of our neighbours from the village when he came round for a coffee what the barns were for.
Goats, he replied.
But why are the buildings so huge?
Because there are 1,200 goats in them.
For their entire lives, without ever going out?
That isn’t natural, I said.
No, he agreed, but it’s profitable. That’s all that counts now.
His parents and grandparents were all goat farmers, here in our hamlet.
What would they think, I asked, if they saw the horrible way goats are treated now?
Actually, he said, my mother and father were among the first people to keep goats in barns.
Ah, I said. Would you like another digestive biscuit?
It’s early morning, the sun is just rising over our frosty field. We have 24-hour access to a barn with a thick straw bed, and we can come and go as we please. This morning we are starting the day with a little violent head-butting.