A gift for our children

All you need to know about Malta’s new Special Areas of Conservation.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) has recently expanded its commitment to preserving Malta’s unique ecosystems by designating new areas as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), designated under the European Union’s Habitats Directive.

By officially recognising these areas as SACs, ERA aims to safeguard the habitats and the species that make them irreplaceable, ensuring they are protected for future generations. There are 13 recognised SACs of national importance to date.

What’s special about the latest designated SAC areas?

Ħondoq ir-Rummien (Qala, Gozo) is a deep valley with steep sides, located between two high pieces of land that stick out into the sea. In this area, you’ll find a thick group of old olive trees. The ground is rocky and full of holes (karstic terrain), and it’s covered with a type of bushy plant called carob maquis, along with a dense, diverse mix of shrubs known as garrigues. It also includes some plants and features you’d find in large, flat areas without trees, called steppes.

Ħondoq ir-Rummien.

Right near the shore at Ħondoq ir-Rummien, there’s a place called il-Ħnejja. Here, you can see rocks sticking out from the ground, which are parts of the deeper earth layers showing on the surface. It’s thought that these rocks used to form a natural archway, which is why it has its name. Il-Ħnejja consists of upper coralline limestone. The area is a significant geomorphological natural feature and acts as a resting area for birds.

Il-Qortin ta’ Isopu (Nadur, Gozo) is a flat, raised piece of land covered with a type of warm-weather shrubbery commonly found in the Mediterranean area, including certain bushy plants called spurges. Alongside, there are also plants that grow in coastal areas and dry grasslands. This site is among the richest garrigue areas in the Maltese Islands; together with the adjacent Il-Qortin tal-Magun, it is one of the few sites in the Maltese Islands which supports the endangered plant White Rockrose (Cistus monspeliensis).

Il-Qortin ta’ Isopu.

Il-Ġebla tal-Fessej (Dwejra, Gozo) is an islet off the coast of Ras il-Ħobż, at the mouth of Wied ta’ Mġarr ix-Xini, with a summit of some five metres above sea level. Geologically, it is entirely composed of lower coralline limestone. This islet is a significant geomorphological natural feature and acts as a resting area for migratory birds.

Il-Ġebla tal-Fessej.

The Xrobb l-Għaġin peninsula (Marsaxlokk, Malta) is mostly covered with coastal bushes, including the Golden Samphire and a special kind of Sicilian Ragwort that’s mostly found in this area, with other types of shrubs spread out further away from the coast. It’s also a key spot for birds that are passing through and serves as a nesting area for two little birds: the Zitting Cisticola and the Spectacled Warbler.

Xrobb l-Għaġin. Photo: Charlene Cuschieri/It-Temp Madwarna.

When certain areas are declared to be special because of their natural importance, here’s what happens in simple steps:

Gathering information

ERA Officials and scientists look at past studies and visit the area in its actual state to gather up-to-date information about the plants, animals, and environment there. This helps to make sure the area meets the legal requirements for being special.

Making a report and proposal

A detailed report that explains why the area is important for conservation is put together. This report is then shown to the ERA board and, if they agree, they make an official announcement that the area is special.

Notifying landowners

People who own land in the area are told about this new status. If they have concerns or want to suggest changes, they can talk to ERA about it.

Managing the land

Even though the area is now officially special (an SAC), the people who own the land still own it. However, there might be talks about how to look after the whole area better. This means making sure that any work or farming done there doesn’t harm its natural beauty or wildlife.

Looking at new projects carefully

While projects or developments proposed within such areas will still be assessed in accordance with existing planning policies for ODZ areas, environment assessment will now focus on the potential negative significant impact on species and habitats for which the site was designated. For Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) this is called the Appropriate Assessment process.

Setting up conservation plans

Each special area will get its own plan for how to protect and improve it. This might include planting native plants, fixing up habitats, keeping out harmful plants or animals from other places, and managing rubbish properly.

Coordinating with everyone involved

Some parts of these special areas are already being looked after, and planning for others will involve talking with local groups, councils, environmental organizations, and landowners to agree on the best way forward.

Staying in charge

ERA stays in charge of these areas, and if there are any problems with people not following the rules, they will be the ones to handle it.

All on the same page

In short, declaring an area as special is all about making sure it’s protected and looked after properly, involving a mix of research, planning, talking with landowners, and making sure everyone’s on the same page about how to care for these important places.

Ħondoq ir-Rummien in particular had been the subject of proposed development projects, which have sparked significant public debate and opposition. The most notable of these proposals has been the idea to develop a marina and accompanying tourist and residential infrastructure at the site.

Critics, including the now-mayor of Qala Paul Buttigieg, have voiced strong opposition to the development proposal at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. They argued that such a development would have harmed the area’s natural beauty, biodiversity, and the local ecosystem. Environmental groups, local residents, and others keen on conserving the area’s pristine state for public enjoyment and ecological preservation have stood against the proposal for years.

“We laid the groundwork through all these years, and the Government carried it out. The satisfaction I feel is immense,” Paul Buttigieg told The Journal. The Qala mayor was also among those receiving the prestigious Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika – a medal awarded by the President of Malta for distinguished service to the country – on Republic Day last December. “I  cried tears of joy. Finally, we have been acknowledged,” he said.

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