CityMetric Advent 11: The town where goat-based arson is a Christmas tradition

The 2005 goat, shortly before someone burnt it. Image: Broken Haiku on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

The Yule Goat is a Scandinavian tradition which involves making a great big goat out of straw and tying red ribbons round it. It seems to have started out life as some kind of harvest offering linked to Thor, whose preferred method of transport was a goat-drawn chariot. In the pre-Santa 19th century, Swedish people sometimes used to dress as goats to deliver presents. The Yule Goat, in other words, is a symbol of warmth, a symbol of generosity, a symbol of plenty.

The Gävle Goat, by contrast, is a symbol of a stubborn refusal to accept the blindingly obvious fact that people really like setting fire to giant goats made of straw. It stands as a monument to man's pigheaded stupidity.

A bit of background here. In 1966 Stig Gavlén, an advertising consultant living in the eastern Swedish city of Gävle, came up with the idea of adorning the town with a giant yule goat in place of a public Christmas tree. 


With the help of some local bigwigs, he made this dream a reality. The goat was 13 metres tall, 7 metres long and weighed three tonnes. It stood proudly in the city's town square for the whole of December.

Then, on New Year's Eve, someone burnt it down.

No matter, you might think. Christmas was over, it was insured, and, anyway, these things happen if you built a giant goat out of straw. So a local business group took over the sponsorship of the goat, and agreed to build a new one next year.

All was fine for a couple of years but, in 1969, it burnt down again. In 1970, it burnt down again: that time it lasted all of six hours. The business lobby group, a bit sick of seeing its goat go up in flames, stopped sponsoring it. But someone else took over, and the goats kept burning.

The Gävle Goat Wikipedia entry is, very possibly, the greatest page on the entirety of the internet. It's pretty well footnoted but, as ever with Wikipedia, salt must be taken. Nonetheless, some extracts:

1972: The goat collapsed because of sabotage.

1974: Burnt.

1976: Hit by a car.

1978: Again, the goat was kicked to pieces.

1979: The goat was burnt even before it was erected. A new one was built and fireproofed. It was destroyed and broken into pieces.

...and on it goes. In 1983, the legs are destroyed. In 1985, the town erects a 2 metre high metal fence, hires security and leaves soldiers from the local infantry regiment on guard. It lasts until January, then it burns down.

In 1986, apparently not put off by any of this, the business lobby decide they want a piece of the action once again, and start building their own goat. From then onwards, some years, there are two goats. That just means there are twice as many goats to burn.

By 1988 the burning of the goat has become such a tradition that, a thousand miles away in England, people are placing bets on when it will go up in smoke. In 1998 there's a major blizzard on the night of 11 December, and the volunteer guards go to get some coffee on the assumption that you can't burn a goat in a snowstorm. This assumption turns out to be wrong.

The remains of the goat. 12 December, 1998. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2001, a guy from Cleveland Ohio, who's only in the country for three weeks, burns the goat again, because he thinks it's part of the tradition, and it's worth quoting Wikipedia once again on this:

The court confiscated Jones's cigarette lighter with the argument that he clearly was not able to handle it. Jones stated in court that he was no "goat burner", and believed that he was taking part in a completely legal goat-burning tradition.

In 2005 the goat is burned by two guys, one dressed as Santa and the other as the gingerbread man. By 2006 they're storing the goat in a secret location. They need a secret location for their giant straw goat.

In 2013, they soaked the goat in an anti-flammable liquid. Guess what happened on 21 December?


In all, something like half the goats built in Gävle since the tradition began have burnt down. Another chunk have been destroyed in some other way. The survival rate for these things is barely one in three.

On, and in 1968 a couple had sex in it, but apparently that time it survived.

There are two lessons here. One is that festive traditions are pretty mutable. The Gävle authorities think the tradition is erecting the giant Yule Goat. Everyone else thinks the tradition is trying to set fire to it. Both these traditions have co-existed happily, sort of, for nearly half a century.

The other lesson is that people really like setting fire to goats.

For those who are interested in the fate of the goat this year, the authorities have helpfully set up the Gavlebocken Twitter feed. "I’m the biggest straw goat in the world," it says. "Follow my struggle to survive arson attacks."

At time of writing, the goat is still there. 

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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