Times of Malta, 4 April 2008, by Ivan Camilleri

The Mistra area, including the bay and the valley, has been included in the list of EU protected sites approved by the European Commission last week.

This means the whole area will have to be protected by Mepa according to strict EU directives and any activities there must be sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment.  Commission sources told The Times yesterday that development in Special Conservation Areas (SACs) is restricted to specific and limited purposes particularly for agriculture, fisheries and forestry needs.

“The Mistra area, known as Il-Qala tal-Mistra, forms part of the Special Protection Area known as Ix-Xagħra tal-Qortin approved by the Commission. The Maltese government proposed the area and, after our analysis, we have added it to the EU’s Natura 2000 network,” the sources said.

Mistra is in the news due to the controversy surrounding a piece of land in the valley, property of Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, which was given an outline development permit to be transformed into a disco. This, according to Mepa’s audit officer, was abusive.

According to information sent by Mepa to the European Commission, the area of Mistra has important ecological importance of European value which must be safeguarded. “The pebble beach at Il-Qala tal-Mistra is covered by Posedonia banquettes, which develop during the winter months due to Posedonia beds found in the bay,” Mepa’s technical report states.

“The saline marshland (at Wied tal-Mistra) is an important habitat in the local context due to the halophilic community of plant and animal species it supports. The very rare Lotus preslii is also present in the area. These species are either only known from this valley or else have a limited distribution in the Maltese islands.”

Apart from Mistra and the whole area of Ix-Xagħra tal-Qortin, the European Commission approved all the other sites as suggested by Malta to be included in its Natura 2000 network. Malta proposed 26 terrestrial sites to form part of the Natura 2000 network, representing about 12.6 per cent of the Maltese islands’ land area as well as a marine site.

A site may be proposed as a candidate Natura 2000 location when it supports natural habitat types and habitats of species of community interest. The natural habitats and species that are listed in the annexes of the EU Habitats Directive include vulnerable, rare and endangered habitats and species.

A Natura 2000 site can also be designated as an SPA as required by the EU Birds Directive when it is known to be particularly important for the conservation of wild bird species. Malta has declared 12 such sites, covering 4.5 per cent of the land area.