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by Gail Kavanagh

While the cow reigns supreme in the western world as a major source of milk, there are a number of other domestic mammals which supply milk for human consumption throughout the world. Of these mammals, the more popular for milking are those which have deep udders, making milking an easier task.

Goat’s milk is a highly regarded substitute for those with an intolerance or allergy to cow’s milk, but it is also a good source of milk protein and calcium in its own right. There are many reasons why goats are more popular than cows as a source of milk and meat in many parts of the world. Goats are hardy, adaptable climbers and do not require as much land for grazing or need as much dry food in the winter. The milk is similar to cow’s milk in texture and flavor, although certain precautions have to be followed to prevent it tasting musky. For example, billy goats have to be kept away from lactating does. But the milk can be used to produce cheese and yogurt like cow’s milk.

Sheep’s milk, produced by lactating ewes, probably has a longer history than cow’s milk when it comes to consumption by humans. Sheep are small, easy to domesticate, and provide another valuable resource in their wooly coats. Added to this, sheep’s milk is generally higher in nutritional value than cow’s milk, having more calcium and essential vitamins and minerals. The fat in sheep’s milk is more easily digested by humans, and can also be frozen without nutritional loss. Sheep’s milk is also resistant to tuberculosis.

Camel’s milk is mainly consumed by nomadic Bedouins and settled peoples in North Africa. The camel is perfectly adapted to arid areas, more so than cows, sheep or goats, because of its ability to conserve water. A lactating camel can also yield more than 3000 liters of milk per year, making it a valuable and nutritional source of food. It is similar to cow’s milk in many ways, and can be made into cheese and butter.

In the Himalayas, the yak is the mammal most commonly used for milking. Related to cows through the bovine family, yaks produce abundant rich creamy milk that can be used to make butter, cheese and yogurt. Yak butter is famously used in tea in Tibet and other parts of the Himalayas where yaks are farmed. These incredibly useful animals also produce tender meat and fine wool, and can carry heavy loads up steep mountain passes.

Mare’s milk enjoyed a bit of a revival in Europe at the beginning of the 21st Century when fear of Mad Cow Disease gripped the world. It still has a good reputation among milk gourmets but is unlikely to become as widespread as the top three – cow, goat and sheep. Lactating mares are not easy to milk as they have nipples rather than udders, and are inclined to kick. Even with the use of milking machines, there is still danger from those powerful race winning hind legs. Mare’s milk is nothing new in the culinary world. It was commonly consumed in Central Asia and used to produce an alcoholic drink called kumis, which also has medicinal properties.

Reindeer’s milk was a basic source of nutrition for the people of Lapland until as recently as 50 years ago. With areas of the far north that were once inaccessible now receiving more frequent deliveries of a greater variety of food, the practice of milking reindeer has declined. Reindeer were never completely domesticated like cows, goats and sheep, and gave little yield, so these animals were a less reliable source of milk. Today, those living in the far north of Scandinavia prefer their milk out of tins.

Many other mammals have been nominated for milking, including dogs, cats and even rats, when Heather Mills McCartney urged people to drink rat’s milk to save the planet in 2011. But even more controversial are the repeated attempts to promote human milk as an alternative to land-hungry herds of cattle. In 2001, artist Miriam Simun held an exhibition called The Lady Cheese Shop at the Michael Mut Gallery in New York. The cheese was made from milk produced by three lactating women over the three-day event, and has been described as ‘soft and sweet – like panna cotta.’

While some alternatives to cow’s milk may be difficult to obtain in quantity in the west, it is worthwhile for the more adventurous to seek them out. The growing popularity of goat’s milk products proves there is a willing market for milk from other mothers.

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