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Off Pist - A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise

Off Piste: Butt of our neuroses

The goat has symbolised lusty desires and Christ-like sacrifice for millennia, but for Helen Wilcox a stray mountain beast in her garden had a rich meaning of its own

The first we knew of the wild mountain goat in our Snowdonia garden was when our television stopped working. The repair man could see there was nothing wrong with the set, so he went outside to inspect the cable - and found that something had chewed through it.

As there was no sign of a dead animal nearby, he knew that it must have been a sizeable and resilient beast, although the shock it had no doubt suffered would probably ensure that it wouldn't test out the replacement cable. His verdict was that there was a wild goat lurking near the house, chomping on whatever might appear tasty.

Perversely, we were rather excited by the thought of a feral goat on our land. In our two years of living in the Snowdonia National Park, we had seen plenty of goats on the mountain slopes around us, their splendid backward-curving horns silhouetted above the rocks on which they love to pose, but we had never experienced them at close quarters.

Now was our chance. For several days we were aware that the animal was in the immediate vicinity; walking home up the path, we could smell its disconcertingly strong scent, as if we had left an enormous piece of goats' cheese mouldering for weeks in the shed.

All the remaining flowers on the fuchsia bushes by the gate had suddenly disappeared, and several other shrubs seemed to have been pruned without us so much as lifting a pair of secateurs. But where was the animal? Had it withdrawn among the trees by the top meadow, or did it retreat up the rocky cliff behind the house when it saw us coming?

And then one night, as I put out the rubbish, I met the goat face to face: it was standing on the lawn a few yards away from me, caught by the light from the open door.

It was large, sturdy and statuesque, with beige hair and eerily pale eyes whose oblong pupils seemed to repel my gaze. Our strange visitor was untroubled by me - perhaps I was more afraid than it was - and it ambled slowly away into the darkness.

As the weeks went by and we saw "our" goat more and more, we began to grow fond of it or, as we discovered, her. We were impressed by her grace and agility as we saw her climb with amazing speed across rocks, over dry stone walls (so much for garden defences) and even halfway up trees.

We realised that she was young and had possibly been separated from the rest of her herd. Was this an orphan left behind after the latest cull? Suddenly we had a stake in discussions about the best way to handle the relationship between animals, plants and people in the North Wales countryside.

On the one hand, the goats have been roaming Snowdonia for thousands of years and it seems typically arrogant of us human johnny-come-latelys to think that we should reduce the surplus population. But on the other, recent climate and habitat changes have led goat numbers to increase significantly, causing serious damage to farm animals and other threatened aspects of the ecosystem, such as rare plants and scarce woodland (not to mention fuchsias and TV cables).

Consequently, there has been a programme of controlled goat-culling within the National Park, giving rise to considerable controversy, and possibly leading to the plight of our feral guest. We began to take the question of goats a lot more seriously.

I have to confess that I have always wondered why sheep are lucky animals and receive the gift of eternal life while poor old goats face damnation. When the Devil himself is visualised in a form other than a serpent, he is given the cloven hooves and curved horns of a goat. What have they done to deserve this?

The simple answer seems to be that they have done nothing at all, but human societies and their religions have. There are several ancient traditions of expelling goats from the community, sometimes over a cliff or into inhospitable desert, as a means of purging the group from sin, sorrow or trouble. I think back to the haunting painting The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, a picture that always troubled me on visits to the Lady Lever Art Gallery when we lived in Liverpool.

The sad and bewildered goat stands patiently in the wilderness, driven there in accordance with Old Testament tradition as a symbol of sins rejected and thereby atoned for. Weighed down with the faults of others, Hunt's scapegoat awaits death. Will this be the fate of the Welsh goats, too? One of the local protesters against the cull commented with a sharp sense of irony that the goats "were being scapegoated".

The tradition of burdening goats by associating them with the things we dislike, or at least things to which we feel superior, is not restricted to the ancient past. During a recent broadcast of the Radio 4 comedy panel programme Just a Minute, one of the celebrity participants referred jestingly to the idea of radio in Azerbaijan, quipping that the national station would be called "Goat FM".

The implication was that goats are not only a vital part of rural life but also the mark of a fairly primitive culture - an insult to both the animal and the civilisation in most cases.

Goats are also assumed to have an excessively active sex life - indeed, for centuries they have been emblems of lechery. To call someone an "old goat" is, as we know, to imply dirty and often inappropriately eager desires.

In Shakespeare's Henry V when Pistol assaults a French soldier with the jeering phrase, "Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat", he is not referring to expensive goods but to the enemy's lust.

Elsewhere in Shakespeare's work, Othello's language loses its characteristic control and eloquence as he is reduced to jibbering sexual jealousy. Echoing the earlier description of his wife and her putative lover as "hot as goats and prime as monkeys", all he can utter in his fury is the evocative exclamation, "Goats and monkeys!"

Fortunately, there is a more positive image of the goat. The Romantic poet and artist William Blake was typically defiant of convention with his outspoken admiration of all sources of energy and desire, and he asserted that "the lust of the goat is the bounty of God".

This saying offers a marvellous corrective to the animal's negative associations: in Blake's vision, the animal is linked with generosity rather than self-indulgence, with God not the Devil. This view is also endorsed within the Bible, since the sensuous love song known as the Song of Solomon includes the following line of praise for the beloved: "Behold, thou art fair, my love ... thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead."

Never mind that the translators of the Authorised Version seemed not to know that sheep go around in flocks and a group of goats is a herd; the unexpected likening of human hair to a number of mountain goats is still definitely (if bizarrely) intended as flattery.

These days, we might prefer to praise someone's agility, rather than their hair, by reference to a goat. After all, it's pretty good to be described as surefooted as a mountain goat when walking on Snowdon, and there is even a company organising holidays in rural Britain that has chosen to call itself The Mountain Goat, with the slogan "Better by Goat".

I wonder where all these mixed messages leave us - and the goats - since we seem to be collectively ambivalent. Smaller breeds are great favourites at children's farms and petting zoos, and goats' milk and cheese are seen as healthy and organic alternatives to dairy products derived from cows.

My sister-in-law has a share in a small herd of goats reared co-operatively in rural Suffolk, and when it came to my turn to milk them the experience was ambiguous. The process was small-scale and wholesome, and demanded patience as well as skill (acquiring the latter required the former). At first the goats seemed a lot more manageable than cows might have been, but that was before I discovered the impressive obstinacy and fearsome kicking power of a relatively small goat.

No wonder the ancient emblem of uncontrollable energies was the satyr or faun, half-man, half-goat, companion of Dionysus and dedicated follower of drink and debauchery.

His playful and sometimes violent energies are depicted throughout ancient (and modern) literature and art, and find especially vivid expression in the great god Pan, with his reed music, dances, orgies and sheer delight in life.

I always think of him "splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat", as Elizabeth Barrett Browning described him in the poem A Musical Instrument. More recently, younger readers or filmgoers think warmly about the combination of goat and human in the form of Mr Tumnus, the friendly and gentle faun in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

How can we read society's perplexingly contradictory signals when it comes to these animals? I often see from the local paper that more goats have been culled, yet we are surrounded by evidence of the symbolic importance of the goat to this part of the UK.

When I drive the beautiful 20-minute journey from the wilds of Snowdonia to Bangor, the civilised cathedral city where I work, the first few miles take me through an area that boasts the densest population of wild goats in the UK. If I set off in the opposite direction, towards Beddgelert, I come across the Royal Goat Hotel with its magnificent inn sign featuring a three-dimensional image of a mountain goat in mid-leap.

The goat is "royal", of course, because it is the emblem of the Royal Welch Fusiliers; their living mascot is paraded on ceremonial occasions in a dignified manner far removed from the foolish or supposedly lecherous activities of its relatives. However, the dignity of the regimental goat has been cast in doubt on at least one occasion.

The author Robert Graves, an officer in the Royal Welch, recounts in Goodbye to All That how one regimental goat-major was charged with "prostituting the Royal Goat, being the gift of His Majesty, the colonel-in-chief, from His Royal Herd at Windsor, by offering its stud-services for a fee to -, Esq, farmer and goat breeder, of Wrexham".

Graves reports that the goat-major claimed to have done this not so much for the money but "out of consideration for the goat", bringing to mind an unfortunate image of the sex-starved beast having a fling in Wrexham.

So the goat strikes again - just as we seem to have understood it, or at least sorted out some of its significance, it resists. This lusty but noble animal, destructive yet quietly aloof, is part of the ancient landscape of Snowdonia; yet those who are committed to preserving the area are among those advocating the culls that have halved the goat population in the past couple of years. For many people, this state of affairs causes anger and frustration - in other words, it "gets their goat", to choose an oddly appropriate expression.

In a more abstract way, the goat causes intellectual frustration. At one end of the spectrum, it represents almost devilish desire, energy and rebellion; at the other, it is the patient scapegoat, an Old Testament image that prefigures Christ as the innocent who bears our sins. Can these two principles be embodied in the same beast metaphorically? I suppose the answer must be yes, since both these elements tend to be present in all of us, too.

In our contrary ways, for example, my family and our neighbours would like to keep Snowdonia as natural as possible, goats and all, even as we settle here and hope that our cultivated land will be as immune from goat-led devastation as urban gardens are. Paradoxically, too, as a society we tend to desire the freedom to enjoy the good life, although we would deny such pleasures to those whom we victimise as a result of our limitations. Every generation has its scapegoats, whether Jews, women, Muslims or - most recently - foreign workers. The human habit of transferring our guilt on to others is depressingly resistant to common sense or the lessons of history.

Meanwhile, the wild mountain goat, the destroyer of our TV cable and the creature that set this train of thought in motion, has left our garden as mysteriously as she came. Why would she go up the mountain again at the coldest time of the year? Psalm 104 tells us that "the high hills are a refuge for the wild goats", but I'm not sure whether that applies to Snowdonia in February 2009.

Did she rejoin her herd, if any of them escaped the cull? Will she herself survive? I must admit to feeling sad at her departure, and when outside in our wintery garden I find I still hope to catch another whiff of that pungent yet curiously comforting smell of mountain goat.

This last phrase is issued as one of a gimmicky set of so-called Shakespearean insults - "Thou smell of mountain goat!" - but, funnily enough, I can imagine it being used as a term of affection here in the future.

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