Many are familiar, through oral history accounts as told by our forefathers, or through vintage photographs of days bygone, of the fact that the goat was the domesticated farm animal that kept both our Islands’ populations striving through the hardships of World War 2.
It was the goat that fed the people and yet, not many though know or fully appreciate that Malta has its own native indigenous breed. Up to around the late 1970s, goats were a far common sight that dotted so frequently the Maltese countryside, forming part of the traditional farming and animal rearing heritage of the Islands. Today, sadly such images are consigned to photographs which ever so often go shared on social media platforms and their groups of vintage photography enthusiasts. Many have so still very well imprinted in their minds the images of visiting shepherds freshly milking warm goat milk right in front of their homes’ doorsteps, a practice that was carried on even right after the war for a spell.
Despite the Islands’ small size and the limitations imposed because of this factor, it remains an astonishing fact that there is indeed an indigenous Maltese goat which was likely introduced here many thousands of years ago. The goat (Capra hircus) is a domesticated species of goat-antelope typically kept as livestock. It was domesticated from the wild goat of Southwest Asia and Eastern Europe.
The goat is a member of the animal family Bovidae and the tribe Caprini, meaning it is closely related to the sheep. There are over 300 distinct breeds of goats around the world. It is one of the oldest domesticated species of animal, according to archaeological evidence that its earliest domestication occurred in Iran some 10,000 calibrated calendar years ago.
The insularity of the local geography also helped the Maltese breed of goat become unique since it has over time adapted itself to both the weather and a certain variety of animal diseases or illnesses. However, the breed is now declining due to several factors.
According to Darryl Grech, a conservationist of indigenous Maltese species, one finds historical records and accounts which indicate clearly that before WW2 there were at least 40,000 goats spread around the Maltese Islands. The war’s imposed scarcity of food obliged the obvious increase in goat meat consumption, which in turn reduced the Maltese goat population. And sadly enough, those remaining numbers of today are under threat as well, as the Maltese goat breed’s numbers total just a few thousand.
Besides the wartime decline, other factors predate that period’s decline when in the early 20th century, the Maltese goat was the cause of smallpox. As a consequence of this, the initiatives and measures undertaken then by the Maltese health authorities led to a drastic reduction in the Maltese goat population size.
Grech says that research is already underway and a census is being conducted by the Agriculture Directorate, so that the goats of the indigenous Maltese breed are all identified, with a view of conserving this particular specie at the local Agrihub through further breeding. Like so, with such research and conservation, the Maltese indigenous breed of goat can survive and not be lost forever.