Among all the kinds of animals you might keep as livestock, goats are often associated with being pesky and hard to control.
Just ask any current or past owner and they will tell you! They’re known for escaping their pens, hopping over fences, getting lost, and generally getting into all sorts of trouble.
It is no wonder then that so many seasoned shepherds associate the sound of goat bells with stress, anxiety, and extra work. But that brings up a good question: why do goats need to wear those bells at all?
Goats wear bells so shepherds can quickly locate a lost or stuck animal, keep track of the herd’s location, and to work more safely around them. Bells may also afford goats a degree of protection from predators, and are also used for ceremonial and cultural purposes.
Bells are an ancient method for helping shepherds keep track of their animals, one that is still useful today. In the rest of this article, we will talk all about goat bells, their uses, and their potential drawbacks.
Do Goats Really Need to Wear Bells in the First Place?
Much of the time, yes. Goats are browsers by nature, and love to explore in search of the tastiest food they can find.
Given room to range on an open pasture, they can cover quite a distance. Even when they aren’t “let out” they will often break out deftly hopping over fences, gates, and other obstacles in order to reach freedom.
Before you know it you can look up and your goats are nowhere to be seen! If you are very lucky they will return on their own accord but often they will end up getting stuck somewhere, lost, or worse.
Since time immemorial bells have been used as a way to keep track of animals like goats that have a tendency to wander, and to maintain awareness of them over distances far greater than their bleating calls might be heard.
The sound of the bell carries long distances, making it easier for the shepherd to know where his herd is at all times.
Bells are low-tech, but high-performance in this regard, today as they were way back when. The following reasons explain why you might want bells on your goats.
Bells Help Shepherds Find Lost or Stuck Goats
Among other things, goats are known for getting themselves into tight spots and then being unable to get back out again.
They might fall into a ditch and be unable to climb back up, become stuck between rocks, tangled in fencing, or wander into an area with steep drop-offs.
If you can’t see them it can be very difficult to locate a lost goat, but if they are wearing a bell then you can follow the sound until you find them.
Especially in rough conditions or bad weather, the clear, high peal of a bell can make all the difference in finding a lost goat quickly, before it succumbs to injury or exposure.
Now, this doesn’t always make the difference, of course, and if a goat is holding still or is already dead, then the bell is of no help.
Bells Help Keep Tabs on a Herd of Goats
Your goats won’t always be out of sight or far away. Sometimes they are just “around,” and bells can help you keep track of the general positions and disposition of your herd even when they are out of sight.
If you are busy with other chores and want to know where they are, just listen for the telltale sound of the bells.
A gentle clanking means they are walking. Quicker tolling means they might be running. A mad crash of bells could be a fight or a predator attack.
No bells at all means they are at rest or missing! This “background info” is incredibly useful when going around the farm on your day-to-day rounds.
Bells Help People Stay Safe When Working Around Goats
Now, it might sound silly to those who have never worked around goats before but bells can help people stay safe around them!
An average adult goat can weigh anywhere from 140 to 300 lbs., has horns, and can dash to top speed in the blink of an eye. As you might have guessed, they can also be pretty ornery.
Even the sweetest, best-behaved goat can have an off day and bucks or charges when you least expect it, and this churlishness is especially common during the rut or whenever a ewe has lambs.
If your back is turned on them for any reason- dealing with another goat, fixing a fence or gate, etc. – and you are the recipient of a charge from a goat you can suffer severe injuries.
The quick clanking of the approaching goat’s bell might be all the warning you get so you can brace yourself or get out of the way.
Sure, laugh all you want; it is funny until it happens to you!
Predators Might be Deterred by Bells
In some cases, the sound of the bell might actually scare off predators before they get too close.
If a coyote or fox is stalking a goat and hears the jingling of bells, it might be unsettled or unsure enough to slink away to find an easier meal.
This is far from guaranteed, of course, as many large predators are notoriously bold and determined, but it might give your goat a fighting chance that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Yeah, a bell does not seem like much defense, but when you understand a bit of predator psychology you can start to see how a bell could startle them or give them pause.
Predators, as a rule, want to attack only when the outcome is certain. Generally, this means when they have most or all of the advantages in their favor. Any new variable involving the attack- a sight, sound or other animal- might put them off.
And again, even if the predator does not retreat, the sound of many bells ringing fast can alert you to the fact that something is going on so you can take action. You might save the day.
Goats Might Be Fitted with a Bell for Holidays
Even in places and cases where bells are not strictly necessary for safety and efficiency, goats and other livestock might still be fitted with a bell for decorative or celebratory purposes.
Many cultures have a tradition of decking out livestock for holidays, and this might involve putting a wreath around an animal’s neck or attaching other decorations to them.
A bell is often part of this holiday fare, and it can add a festive air to the proceedings.
Are Goats Bothered or Hurt by Bells?
The million dollar question, and one that is hotly debated and fought over this very moment, is whether or not goats are harmed by bells.
There are those who believe that the weight of a bell- even a small one- can cause injuries to a goat’s neck over time and make it hard for them to feed.
There are also those who believe that the constant jingling of a bell can damage a goat’s hearing or drive it mad from aggravation.
The other side of the coin is that there are just as many people who have worked with goats for years and claim their herd has had an issue with bells while at the same time being critical for the efficient management of their animals.
They believe that goats become used to the sound of their own bell and learn to tune it out after a while.
The jury is still out on this one, but there is evidence to support both sides: some bells can be horribly loud and heavy, and it is easy to see how they could hurt a goat’s well-being.
But there is no denying that farmers do depend on bells and there are plenty of goats that seem totally well-adjusted and happy while wearing them.
What are Some Alternatives to Bells?
The best, modern alternative to a bell is a GPS collar. These use satellite technology to track the location of your animal in real-time, and they can be fantastically accurate.
You can get an app for your phone or other devices that will tell you exactly where your goat is at all times, down to the meter.
Though they give off no audible signal, they are far lighter and less obtrusive than bells and are quickly making inroads among farmers that can afford them.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.