When the elderly man materialized, heading down a mountain known as Krasji vrh at about 10 in the morning with a young goat trailing him, the forest erupted in a chorus of relieved bleating. The goat, whose name was Zuma, had wandered off from the herd the previous evening and had missed the early milking hour. Zuma’s furry colleagues had been calling out for her all morning.
In the countryside of western Slovenia, such disappearances are often permanent. Gray wolves and brown bears roam the mountains. Both species are federally protected. The Drežnica goats are not—even though there are only about 600 of them in all of Slovenia, the country’s only indigenous breed of goat.
“If there were 600 elephants in all of Africa, the whole world would be donating to the cause,” Janja Berginc observed ruefully. Compact and bespectacled, her blond hair pulled in a bun, the 35-year-old woman smiled as her father stepped back to watch the errant animal complete her descent and nuzzle her way through Berginc’s herd of 40 Drežnica goats. “They have a reputation for being stubborn. But really, you can control them. And you can see, they are very curious,” she added as two of her goats sniffed my hiking boots.
I reminded myself that it was a privilege to be among them. Researchers have determined that among European goat breeds, the Drežnica variety is genetically distinct. They inhabit an Alpine terrain spanning a mere 10-mile radius and meet the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s criteria of being at a high risk of extinction. Their tiny range and number belie their cultural and culinary significance in Slovenia. And the hardy ruminant, once disparaged as a menace to forests, may prove indispensable as the Central European country’s farmers adapt to a changing climate.
Very much of the wild
Drežnica goats are not the most famous of Slovenia’s native domestic breeds—that accolade goes to the blazing-white horses of Lipica. But they are surely among the most independent-minded. By appearance, they seem very much of the wild: large (weighing up to 180 pounds), with formidable curved horns and shaggy coats of varying color. They are known to mingle with the undomesticated Alpine ibex and to fight amongst themselves. During mating season in August, the odor of the males urinating on themselves in excitement sours the pristine mountain air.
Meanwhile, the females are not especially accommodating from a dairy standpoint. Each of Berginc’s goats produces on average a half gallon of milk per day, slightly less than the more common breeds of goat. And though the Slovenian government offers financial assistance to farmers like her for preserving the breed, the annual subsidy is just 30 Euros per goat. “You can’t imagine how many papers I have to sign just to sell goat products,” she sighed.
Berginc’s herd—among the largest of the region’s hundred or so Drežnica goat farmers—passes time in a state of sequestration, munching through rented forestland replete with fir and hornbeam trees, about a mile above the village from which the breed derives its name.
Drežnica’s human population, 511, is just slightly less than that of its indigenous goats. The agrarian mountain village is almost absurdly idyllic, not only in appearance but also in its self-sustaining economy, with crop growers, beekeepers, and meat and dairy producers all selling to each other. The dairy from Drežnica’s eponymous goats figures into this equation, naturally.
After loading up her truck with the morning’s yield of milk, Berginc led photographer Ciril Jazbec and me by car to her modest dairy operation in the village. Seated on a verdant patio, we sampled yogurt, ricotta, young and aged goat cheese—all of it light and delicious, and washed down with glasses of juice from a nearby elderberry tree.
As we ate, Jazbec softly murmured the lyrics to “Čin, čin, čin Drežnica,” a folk song that Slovenians have sung to their children at bedtime for generations. Looming over us was the century-old Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which in turn is dwarfed by the 7,362-foot Krn Mountain just to the north. Radiating from Drežnica in all directions is western Slovenia’s lush Soča Valley, so named for the milky emerald river that courses through it.
A destination with history
The valley abutting Italy’s eastern border has achieved renown in multiple ways. Hunters in the region have long flocked to the forested mountains in search of chamois, a bulky antelope-like mammal. Of late, the Soča Valley has become a favored destination for paragliders. (Drežnica has two guest houses: one operated by Berginc and another by a paragliding instructor whose rustic fare includes dishes made from wild boar and bear.)
Just four miles west of Drežnica, in Kobarid, is Slovenia’s internationally acclaimed restaurant, Hiša Franko, with a locally sourced menu (including Drežnica goat dairy products) that has garnered two Michelin stars.
Kobarid is famous for another reason: Just over a century ago during World War I, the town was known as Caporetto and occupied by the Italian army, until a surprise attack in 1917 by Austro-Hungarian forces—led by a cunning young German lieutenant named Erwin Rommel—routed the Italians and nearly ended World War I altogether.
Ernest Hemingway’s classic A Farewell to Arms immortalized the Caporetto fiasco, as does a much-visited museum in Kobarid. Italians to this day will describe a failed marriage or business as having gone “the way of Caporetto.”
Under the terms of the armistice following World War I, Italy claimed the town and much of the surrounding valley from the dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire, only to forfeit it to Yugoslavia following World War II. Even now, farmers in the Soča Valley continue to stumble upon rusted bomb fragments, mummified grenades, and other artifacts of that bloody era.
‘Where are the goats?’
Throughout it all, the fate of the Drežnica goats wobbled on a turbulent region’s knife-edge. Parents who sang “Čin, čin, čin Drežnica” to their children likely did not understand the poignancy of the lyric, “Drežnica, kye so kozice?” or “Drežnica, where are the goats?”
During Italian fascist rule, when Slovene children like Janja Berginc’s grandfather were forbidden from speaking their native tongue at school, the Mussolini government decreed that goat grazing was a hazard to the forests and the animals should be exterminated. Families hid as many goats as they could, but their numbers still dwindled. Yugoslavian forestry officials also continued to frown on goat farming. Only in 1999—eight years after Slovenia became an independent republic—did the new government’s Rural Development Program undertake to save what by then had become a critically endangered species.
But today the Drežnica goats have achieved particular value in Slovenia, and not just due to their scarcity or because of the easy digestibility of their milk.
Jazbec and I learned this one day in the Soča Valley town of Bovec, a sunny magnet for kayakers and skiers owing to its adjacency to both the Soča River and the Julian Alps. We were there to visit another relatively large Drežnica goat farm owned by a young couple, Tine and Tina Cuder. A sign in town pointed to their goat farm, presumably to draw tourists and discerning cheese consumers. Tina, a lean and sharp-eyed woman with tattooed forearms and a Facebook page that describes herself as “crazy goat lady,” met us at the entrance. Behind her, we could see their 40 goats and as many sheep, all dreamily foraging through a sloping meadow that had once been dense forest. A year-old Macedonian Shepherd, already immense, paced vigilantly nearby.
Tina’s husband, Tine, was working in the stables, where a second, even larger shepherd dog, a Bosnian Tornjak, pulled at its chain and bellowed menacingly at us. Athletic and with angular Slavic features like his wife, Tine explained that he had picked up the vocation in 2000.
“My father was a math professor who started raising the goats as a hobby,” he said. “In the seventies, he cleared out all the trees to make these pastures. It took him several years. In the eighties, the economy was very bad here, and all the farmers left to go work in the factories. So, to bring them back, in the nineties the government began offering financial assistance to farmers.”
Still, “it’s not an easy way to make a living. It’s hard work. You cannot do this if you don’t love it,” Tine said.
Ready for a harsh climate
There happened to be another visitor at the farm: Simon Horvat, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia’s capital and one of the foremost experts on Drežnica goats. Horvat had three of his own in his trailer and was driving them north to pastures in the mountains. For the past several years, Horvat has devoted considerable time to studying the rare animals—believing that their robustness could pay dividends to a climate-challenged region.
“The Drežnica goats were never selected for their milk or their meat,” the professor explained. “What’s important about them is that they’re very self-sufficient, very resistant to local diseases, and have a high adaptiveness to hard pastures.” In recent decades, Horvat went on, Slovenia’s pastureland had been overtaken by trees: “As a country, we’re nearly 60 percent composed of forest.”
Even in normal times, a village like Drežnica, which is not near mountain streams, doesn’t benefit from a consistent source of running water. Nowadays, however, Slovenia and neighboring countries are imperiled by the dwindling snowfall in the Alps and the rapid melting of the Alpine glaciers. The growing scarcity of water and the re-foresting of the countryside might prove anathema to most livestock. But to these 600 or so dew-drinking, tree-nibbling, mountain-dwelling goats, it’s another day in paradise.
Said Horvat, “The Alps has maybe the highest rate of climate change in the world. Cattle won’t be able to handle these dry conditions.”
The professor opened the back of his trailer to show us his three stubby-eared, chestnut-haired goats before they continued their journey to the mountain pastures. Smiling at them, he added, “As long as climate change continues, we need to keep these guys.”
Robert Draper is a National Geographic contributing writer.