The Malta Independent, 4th June 2008 –

Din l-Art Helwa is a joint manager of an ambitious afforestation project with the Parks Department of the Resources and Rural Affairs Ministry and BirdLife Malta. The site, known as Foresta 2000, lies in Mellieha just as you leave Ghadira Bay to Marfa, stretching further left towards the sheer cliffs of ic-Cumnija near Ras il-Qammieh. The road in front of St Agatha’s Tower (the Red Tower), which is managed by Din l-Art Helwa, is the northern boundary of the project. The site extends southwards towards Ghadira Nature Reserve managed by Birdlife.

When this project began in May 2002, the area had been extensively used and misused by human activity, often to the detriment of the natural environment and the aesthetic qualities of the site. The partners are working hard to recreate tracts of Mediterranean woodland in order to encourage biodiversity, and to improve public access to the site. Through the popular 34U campaign, members of the public also contribute towards this project.

A long-abandoned holiday complex on the south slope is certainly not enviable in this area.

Habitats such as the maquis (scrubland), garigue and clay steppe are being restored and preserved. All alien species are being uprooted to give way to native kinds. This is being done in stages to protect the soil from further erosion. Only native species are being sown or planted on site. Kilometres of rubble walls are being repaired. For irrigation, the project should benefit from the sewage treatment plant which is under construction at ic-Cumnija.

A visit to the Red Tower, which is also being upgraded by Din l-Art Helwa, can be combined with a walk through the Foresta 2000 footpaths. The view from the roof of the Red Tower is quite exceptional.

The tracks will take you through a kilometre of woodland and maquis, some of which was planted around 25 years ago. Some aleppo pines and holm oaks are now approaching a height of seven metres.

There are some large examples of wolfbane (periploca angustifolia). This once-scarce plant is making a successful comeback after the end of heavy grazing. The plant is covered by huge amounts of seed pods with a silk covering in June. Hence the Maltese name of “silk tree” (sigra tal-harir). You will come across many species of bind weed, olive leaved germander, thyme, hawthorn, lentisk, and the recently-planted sandarac (tetraclinus articulata). Around 500 trees were planted hoping that, in time, it will successfully re-colonise the area on its own.

This is Malta’s national tree and it closely resembles a cypress or a juniper but the cones are extremely small. It is also one of the few conifers to survive fire as it comes back out again after the first rains. Within Europe, this tree is only found in the wild in Malta and in one small area in Spain. The main area of its range is found in Northern Africa.

The narrow-leaved cistus (cistus monspeliensis) is another fast-growing but very rare plant successfully planted in the area. The small white-and-yellow flowers are in bloom in spring and early summer.

In the older pines, many nest boxes have been placed to encourage breeding birds, mainly the spotted flycatcher, tree sparrows, and the Sardinian and spectacled warblers.

Throughout the year, all shrubs provide small fruits and berries – good food for migrating birds and wintering species. In winter these berries will also attract blackbirds, song thrush, blackcaps, robins and starlings. Any walk in the winter months is usually rewarding in seeing these species, and hopefully in time, goldcrest and firecrest which are also quite common in pine trees.

Generous donations towards the re-planting of more trees than the great number recently destroyed were a positive sign that nature and wildlife are cherished by most persons. Din l-Art Helwa shall strive to continue to improve and protect our natural heritage at all costs.

Din l-Art Helwa is very grateful for the total dedication of ranger Ray Vella towards this project, condemns the latest personal attack on the same Ray Vella and strongly expects the police to place these criminal acts at the very top of their investigating priority list.

Mr Rizzo is the Hon. Treasurer of Din l-Art Helwa