The Malta Independent 1 April 2023, Saturday
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‘Strong effort’ needed to restore environmental areas damaged by nature, illegalities

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 18 September 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

Proper ecological restoration programmes should be implemented in areas which have suffered environmental damage caused by illegalities and natural phenomena, Nature Trust Conservation officer Annick Bonello said.

There have been various occasions in which floods and fires destroyed habitats, while illegalities such as offroading and dumping of waste also caused harm. In this respect, there should be a stronger effort to restore the affected areas to their original state as much as possible.


One example of this is that if trees were destroyed, they should be replaced by new ones, she said.

Asked whether there are enough trees in Malta, Bonello said that in the context of non-urban areas “our natural environment is what it is; shaped by climate over the last few thousands of years”.

“Garigue is the dominant ecosystem: a magnificent one which changes in colour over the year. In summer most flora is dried up, thriving as seeds/underground bulbs/rhizomes. From October onwards it bursts into life by rainfall. This is one of the richest habitats on the Maltese Islands and home to very rare and endemic flora (like orchids), together with a few small trees do thrive on garigue including carob/lentisk/myrtle,” Bonello said.

She added that Malta’s garigue habitats do not support much soil, meaning that trees are very limited in such areas.


Urban areas lack greenery

When it comes to urban areas, Bonello said that it does lack “greenery”. She said that such “greenery” is not limited to having trees only “and should not be water ‘gulping’ and unsustainable flowers and lawn grass”.

She pointed out that initiatives such as the ones taken by the Zebbug and Hamrun local councils where they incorporated trees in roads which are local and indigenous are very positive and should be copied by others.

Malta has a very arid climate whereby nearly half of the year has barely any rain. “Add to this the recent changes in rainfall patterns over the last decades (due to climate change) and overdevelopment, leading to less rainfall infiltrating our rocks to replenish our aquifers; all these have negative effects on our flora,” she said.

She added that when one looks at a satellite image of the Maltese islands, apart from the over 30% being built up, agricultural areas and garigue (xaghri) dominate the countryside.

Trees are found concentrated mostly on valley sides which have more moisture and more protection from winds.  Exceptionally there are also artificially forested areas, such as Marfa and Mizieb.


Decrease in the number of trees in the last decade

She said that the number of trees in Malta has dwindled in the last decade. Bonello pointed out that trees were removed after causing damage to roads and buildings and road widening programmes definitely had a part in tree removal. And that’s where long-term plans are important, she said. When trees are planted one must keep in mind their size in 5 to 10 years’ time. So spacing of trees and frequency of trees must be planned to avoid outcries by the public in 10 years’ time. A small tree now could cause problems in the future (blind spots for drivers or road damage). It is a disgrace to see large trees being hacked down because of lack of planning in the past. Oftentimes transplanting is not very successful especially how it is done locally, she said.   

She said that trees found in beautiful large gardens are not being protected and have in cases been replaced by buildings.

“Again we need to have legislation and financial protection for land owners to be compensated thoroughly for keeping green areas in urban contexts/gardens. We all know about the public’s outcry a couple of years ago against the central link and the consequential removal of a substantial amount of trees adjacent to the planned roads,” she said.


What can be done to improve the situation?

Appreciation of Malta’s ecosystems as they are, whether it is garigue or afforested areas, can be one of the solutions, Bonello said.

Additionally, better emphasis on urban soft landscaping using local trees and shrubs, is very important.

“We all know of the importance of trees. Now is the time to have the guts to value soft landscaping in a sustainable way – by choosing Mediterranean flora which does not add pressure on our limited water resources. Adding lawns and flowering plants, which use up a lot of water, is very unsustainable,” she said.

Bonello explained that green walls are very unsustainable in terms of the volumes of water they use up and instead better investments must be made to add greenery in pedestrianised main areas. People must walk and enjoy walking for their health’s sake.

“Valletta is very pedestrianised, but still lacks soft landscaping,” she said.

Nature Trust Malta promotes “the conservation and restoration of natural areas in proper ways with the Environment Resources Authority permits. We have sites under our management through the help of ERA and the Energy and Water Agency (EWA) which include Wied Ghollieqa – the valley between the University and Kappara, San Gwann, Pembroke Natura 2000 site, Marsaxlokk Ballut marshland and Maghluq Marsascala marshland and parts of Fiddien Valley (Chadwick Lakes).  Each site has different management strategies according to the habitat type. The Wied Ghollieqa Nature Reserve in fact has a 33-year-old history which started off with a group of university students (Arbor) protesting against the development within this valley. It is really a success story whereby over the years thousands of indigenous trees and plants were planted making it a green lung which can be seen as one drives over Regional road. It is important to realize that it is not just about planting trees but also the management of such trees and sites, removal of alien invasive flora and restoration programmes. Sourcing local trees from seeds and growing them in nurseries ensures that the local genetic stock is conserved and sustained. Trees have a very important role not just in cleaning the air, but also in maintaining the landscape through soil and water retention and serving as an important habitat for many species.”



Volunteers and site manager within Wied Ghollieqa Nature Reserve removing alien invasive plants and planting seeds in nursery. Photos: Tamsin Caruana, site manager at Wied Ghollieqa


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