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Amazing World

The Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

In the ancient Roman calendar, March was the first month of the year. Named after Mars, the god of war – who inexplicably beat his sword into a ploughshare as the dual patron of agriculture – it was a season that represented a return to nature and the Spring revival of life in the fields. North of the equator, after what George Harrison would have called a “long, cold, lonely winter”, we can all start looking forward to the natural wonders that reveal themselves as the seasons get warmer.

For most people, there’s probably nothing particularly amazing about goats, especially when we mostly just glimpse them grazing in a field or trotting around a farm. However, to catch a glimpse of a goat atop a spindly tree might just capture your interest; to see a herd of them nestled in the branches and be told this is a regular occurrence…that might just capture your attention. For this strange and confusing sight, you need only head to one place: Morocco.

Grown almost exclusively in the Sous valley of southwestern Morocco, the rare and endangered Argania tree (Argania spinosa) plays host to the mischievous goats. An aesthetically unattractive tree, with thorny branches and a gnarled trunk that reflects the harshness of its desert-like environment, it is nonetheless prized for the argan oil that can be extracted from its fruit. Such popular demand for this resource has led to the species becoming a protected entity to prevent its extinction from over-farming. It is this fruit, too, that allures the goats to the tree. At first simply happy to devour any fruits that fall to the ground or are within easy reach, the goats eventually engage in more precarious acts of caprine gymnastics to obtain their desired fix.

What results is a surreal image that could be fairly compared to a combination of Salvador Dali and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie The Birds. Yet, however odd it may appear to a non-native, this behaviour is not only tolerated by the farmers who cultivate the Argania tree, it is positively encouraged! Whilst the fruit of the tree matures, the goats are kept away, and when the time is right, are set loose to devour to their heart’s content. The result is a mutually beneficial arrangement for both parties: the goats get access to a rich food-source for which there is practically no competition (it is not cultivated for human consumption), whilst the farmers can collect the passed seeds from the goat’s excrement to then press into argan oil.

The lucrative nature of this symbiotic relationship has, regretfully, led to exploitation of both the goats and the Argania trees themselves. For the purposes of obtaining a greater short-term yield of argan oil, more disreputable individuals have elected to release great swarms of goats onto the trees, which invariably leave the already threatened species severely weakened. Outside of the commercial value of the tree and its fruit, the goats themselves are often cruelly bound with rope to the branches, unable to move in the intense heat, in order to provide a spectacle for curious tourists. The more responsible local farmers who depend on the goats for their livelihood encourage people to avoid be charged for these cruel imitations of nature.

To see an authentic example of this weird and wonderful event, it is recommended to avoid the majority of those seen near major roads (very likely to be cruel tourist-traps) and instead take the less-travelled routes in the mountainous regions of the Sous valley. The Argania’s fruit is at its most ripe in June, making the beginning of summer your most likely opportunity for a genuine experience. Any sighting taking place significantly before or after this time is also likely to be a trick: if the goats have nothing to eat in the branches, they are unlikely to climb up for the fun of it. Also, be very careful about pilfering any of the fruit itself, as stringent cultivation laws entitle only the farmers to do so.

Now that winter is finally over, and the season of new life begins, we can all start to see examples of the amazing world around us if we look closely. Although not all of us will be fortunate enough to see anything larger than birds and squirrels nestling in the trees, the tree climbing goats of Morocco show us that in the modern world, where spectacles increasingly cease to surprise us, the mysteries of nature still hold the power to elicit a double-take from all of us.

– by Will Girling