We’re baaaaah-ck... sheep farming in Malta is making a comeback

Sheep farming and its quality produce are making a comeback but even farming activists are concerned at the lack of regulation for a sector that could have an impact on the countryside

Milking it: sheep-rearing could allow young farmers take on their parents’ farms
Milking it: sheep-rearing could allow young farmers take on their parents’ farms

A consumer trend favouring local produce such as the much-loved Maltese cheeselet and ricotta could be leading to an increase in sheep farms, says farming activist Jeanette Borg.

In 2020 the Planning Authority received 18 applications for the development sheep farms, 13 of which request a permit to build entirely new farms. The applications span the length of Malta and Gozo.

Borg, who is a member of the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MAYA), thinks the sheep farm trend is responding to consumer habits that prize the Maltese gbejna, but said a proper planning framework is needed to ensure there is no negative environmental impact. “There should be a standard layout for such farms so to avoid improvisations,” she said.

Malta’s rural development plan sees cooperation between livestock farmers and cheese producers as a valuable business opportunity for younger members of farm families, to create a much-needed intergenerational transfer of farms.

Sources in the agriculture department also told MaltaToday that sheep farms are becoming more economically viable than intensive livestock-farming like pig rearing, which contribute to greater quantities of animal waste.

But planning rules for the sector are still inadequate, often resulting in eyesores in the countryside due to the land area required. The reutilisation of existing buildings is not always possible due to safety requirements.

One of the applications this year is a 250sq.m goat farm at ta’ Ghajn Qattus in Mgarr, proposed by the developer Mark Gaffarena. In his project development statement, Gaffarena notes that Mgarr has experienced a keen interest to cultivate an “agricultural culture” which is leading to the “rejuvenation” of the village. “The proposal for the construction of a goat farm seeks to accommodate the growing agricultural requirements of the settlement. In addition, the design of the farm attempts to include traditional traits from the nearby rural fabric.”

But the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) is objecting to one of the developments at Ramla l-Hamra in Xaghra, where the proposed farm will be adjacent to the Wied ta’ L-Għajjun valley, which waters the Wied Tal-Furnar valley system. The ERA said a new farm and ancillary interventions would result in the introduction of additional built-up structures in the rural area.

The ERA wants these new farms to first re-use existing structures or disused farms to decrease environmental and visual impacts. The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has also objected to the Xaghra farm, noting the proposal will cause an “undeniable and irreversible intensification of development within a landscape that is primarily rural”.

Some of the sheep farms approved in the past have had a negative impact on the landscape.

One controversial approval was a livestock building in the middle of the San Lawrenz valley. Both the ERA and the PA case officer had expressed concern that the sheep farm would be utilised for recreational purposes. The PA’s planning commission still approved the farm.

Another controversial case was a sizeable two-storey sheep farm in Bidnija valley, which was even objected to by the MAYA foundation. The NGO wants a complete overhaul of the PA’s rural policy approved in 2014, to ensure that only sustainable farming development is allowed rural areas. Proposals include facilitating the conversion of abundant derelict buildings, and guidelines for a more a more discrete appearance of new buildings complete with proper landscape mitigation measures.