Down with the kids

Categories: Features

A heart-warming visit to the North Downs farm of Ellie’s Dairy reveals a place where goats are treated with an extraordinary level of care and respect

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

“I was tricked into it. Conned.” David Shannon grins cheekily, recounting the tale of how one beer-fuelled bet led inexorably to the ownership of a goat herd. “I was into car racing at the time, and I promised one night in Holland that if I won this championship, I’d buy Debbie a goat.”

He won it three times. “That’s Betty, Wilma and Ellie,” his partner, Debbie Vernon teases. Six years and 200 goats later and Ellie’s Dairy is one of the country’s finest suppliers of raw goat’s milk, cheese and kid goat meat.

For Debbie, it has been the fulfilment of a childhood ambition. “I’ve always wanted goats, ever since I was a kid and my aunty Flo taught me to sing Paddy McGinty’s Goat.” Being city born and bred, for years she had to content herself with goat paraphernalia each birthday.

All things goat
“There actually used to be a rather limited supply of goat toys,” she says, as we eye up her latest on-theme calendar. “It’s only recently gotten popular”—a rise which seems of a piece with a growing demand across the country for all things goat.

Goat’s cheese is all the rage. Goat’s milk is following suit and even the meat, once eyed with suspicion on these isles, is increasingly feted as a delicacy. Once Jamie Oliver has featured a product on his Friday Night Feast series (as he did with kid goat meat in December), you know it’s well on its way to the mainstream.

It’s not just the flavour—though that is pretty special, as the queue outside Borough Market’s Gourmet Goat at lunchtime wordlessly demonstrates—but the ethics of it. Every year, thousands of kid goats are slaughtered for the simple fact that they are male.

Goats at Ellie's Dairy

Binning baby animals
“The farmers just want the mother’s milk,” says Debbie. Rearing animals is expensive, as well as effortful; easier, if you’re after big profits, just to bin them. Yet from the moment David and Debbie decided to make their pet goats their business, they knew that binning baby animals was not a route they could in all conscience take.

“I’m actually vegetarian,” says Debbie—who in an ideal world would, I suspect, have every single goat live out its life at her farm, regardless of its sex. Butchering the kids still upsets her, but at least they live “short, happy lives” while they’re here.

“The butcher is less than a mile away, and for six months they have space and company.” The result is some delicious, tender meat, demand for which far outstrips the supply to Gourmet Goat and Ellie’s Dairy’s own stalls.

Tender and sweet
“We have no problem selling it: everyone assumes it’s used in jerk and Caribbean-style curries but in fact, with exceptions, such places tend to use old goat meat.” While kid meat is tender and sweet, demanding minimal cooking time, mutton (as old female goats no longer producing milk are classified) is what’s given goat meat its tough, stringy reputation.

In taste and texture, it could not be further removed from the kid meat promoted by such luminaries as Fergus Henderson at St John or Karam Sethi at Gymkhana, which has everything from spicy goat brain to kid keema on its menu. Ever supportive of holism, Ellie’s Dairy even sends its kid goat skins off to a tannery, from whence they come back as soft, rustic-chic rugs to be sold.

It’s easy to underestimate, as we drink tea with goat’s milk in the North Downs farm kitchen to the soundtrack of bleats from the barn, the strength and scale of Ellie’s Dairy’s influence. Debbie and David might jest, but their hard work (and that of their goats) draws devoted customers from miles around.

Goats at Ellie's Dairy

Market stalkers
“We have market stalkers: people who will cycle across London in the rain just to get a pint of milk. We even deliver to Scotland.” Some are drawn by the health benefits of goat’s milk—it’s less fatty, and for people with lactose allergies can be better digested—some by the fact that, like the cow’s milk from Hook and Son, it’s unpasteurised.

“There are 23 licensed producers of raw goat’s milk in the UK. Of those, how many are still going?” She shrugs. At last count, they were the largest. “The majority are confined to supplying their own area at the farm gate.”

Retailing raw milk has historically been made notoriously difficult by the Food Standards Agency. Hygiene inspections are exacting, Debbie continues, and tests rigorous—but “we always said we would do it. Pasteurised milk is not what milk should be.” Not only are there higher nutrient levels in raw milk, but the taste is a world away from the strong and, well, goaty flavour we’ve come to expect.

An experiment
I remember putting goat’s milk in my tea several years ago by mistake: mum had bought it as ‘an experiment’, and it tasted like one—funky and lingering. “Heating goat’s milk, as you do when you pasteurise it, brings out the goaty effect. What they are fed, in the herds which supply the big supermarkets, is largely soya nuts and silage,” explains David, “so that’s what you’re tasting.”

In contrast, his goats’ pasture-based diet (topped up with a small amount of natural cereal as “they just can’t find enough protein in forage. We’ve tried repeatedly”) shines through in the sweet, floral freshness of my milky tea here.

The small parlour in which the goats are milked daily adheres religiously to FSA standards, while revolving around goat welfare. “We probably get half the amount of milk than that of the commercial dairies per year from our ewes, but they last many years longer.”

Goats at Ellie's Dairy

The knacker’s yard
The average goat on a commercial farm reaches the end of its productive life at five years, thanks to the intense, high-yield protein diet which “just burns them out. After that it’s the knacker’s yard for them,” David says meaningfully, “but our oldest, Betty, is still milking at 12 years old.”

We’re introduced to her: a grey goat who looks, well, disgruntled, if I’m honest. One of the founding mothers, she’s earned the right to be the herd’s “grumpy old lady”, as Debbie calls her—but she looks up anyway. Not only does Debbie know each goat by sight, but they’ll respond when called. “To me this is like a roomful of people: they all sound different. They all look different.”

Indeed, the more I look, the more I notice the variation. I’m no goat whisperer, but there is a significant difference between, say, Gloria Gaynor and the ginger goat currently cuddling up to Debbie. “We used to name them after cartoon characters or soul singers. We’re sort of running out,” she says.

Spacious, hay-strewn barn
Though often found out in the pastures, grazing on grass and bushes, today’s inclement weather has forced every one of the goats to take shelter inside. “They hate rain. They absolutely hate it,” says Debbie feelingly. “If it’s wet underfoot, they will not go out for anyone,” she continues. Who would, when the alternative is a warm, spacious, hay-strewn barn?

Not these goats—nor indeed Debbie, it transpires. Come kidding season, David will often wake up to find his wife “has gone off to the camp bed in the barn”. He’s only half-exaggerating. If a mother-to-be seems in trouble, she’ll think nothing of spending the night inside. “We’re there for each one of them. If there is a problem we have to sort it,” he continues—and that isn’t easy.

“Goats are harder than cows and sheep—there’s less room for maneuvering the unborn kid.” Though he grew up on a cattle farm (their current farm was in fact his father’s, before EU milk quotas crippled him), many subsequent years in engineering made his first kidding season “rather a baptism of fire”.

Goats at Ellie's Dairy

Kidding time
Still, they managed it—and with arguably more success than the bigger goat breeders, where human contact is necessarily kept to a minimum. David is not one to knock his peers—“they do what they do well”—but it’s during kidding time that David and Debbie’s hands-on approach to farming comes into its own. “If an ewe is in trouble, one of the older goats will come and look for us, to tell us.”

A labouring ewe in a separate pen will often fare worse than if she labours with the herd around her. “I visit these big farms, with 5,000 goats going into the milking parlour, and they are all craving attention. They just want to be stroked.”

For all their reputed bad-tempers, goats are highly intelligent, social creatures: “They need company. We would never sell one of our goats to be reared singly. Cows neither.” His twinkling eyes look suddenly serious. “We all need friends, you know.”

The ‘cheese fairy’
We move swiftly on to the ‘cheese fairy’, as Debbie calls Julie, the cheesemaker behind the company’s cheeses: Ellie, Fremlin’s Kentish Log and the camembert-style Shaggy’s Beard. Named after three of the goats, these are handmade weekly at a tiny dairy just up the road from the farm.

They are fresh, light and semi-soft, their texture requiring a lightness of touch from the cheesemaker born of care and technique. “Goat’s milk is fragile. It flakes very easily, and if it’s not made in small batches it can end up rubbery”—a feature, you’ll notice, of many a shop-bought feta.

Julie lifts the lid on a vat to show us the golden-hued milk for a batch of Ellie, gently curding with the vegetarian rennet she added moments ago. In an hour or so the curds will be cut, poured into moulds and left to drain.

They’ll be turned and salted several times over the course of the following days, before hitting the market on Friday where they’ll fly off the Borough Market stall—their popularity a fitting tribute to the four-legged namesake who has outdone even Paddy McGinty’s pet when it comes to goat promotion.

He might have been conned, but David isn’t kidding when he tells me: “I wouldn’t want to do anything but this.”