Breeding birds of the Maltese Islands – a scientific and historical review

October 12, 2012

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Breeding Birds of the Maltese Islands - a scientific and historicl review

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The EU Habitats Directive

July 13, 2010
  Tuesday, 13th July 2010 

  The EU Habitats Directive 

 Alfred E. Baldacchino 

    Few, if any, have never heard of the European Union’s Council Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as the Habitats Directive of May 21, 1992. But fewer know what the aims and obligations of this EU Directive are.

 

The main aim of the Habitats Directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity and to ensure the restoration or maintenance of natural habitats and species, that are important to the EU, at a favourable conservation status. Natural habitats and wild species of flora and fauna are under continuous threat from development and agricultural intensification. To pursue such an aim, EU member states are obliged to designate special areas of conservation (SACs) so that a coherent European ecological network known as Natura 2000 is created. These SACs support rare, endangered or vulnerable natural habitats, native plants and animals. Once a site designated by a member state is accepted by the EU Commission, it forms part of the Natura 2000 network, for which the member state has to honour the obligations incorporated in the directive. The EU has accepted as SACs 35 sites proposed by Malta, including Buskett/Girgenti area, Pembroke area, coastal cliffs from Il-Qammieħ area to Rdum tan-Nofsinhar, Wied il-Miżieb (which includes Mistra Bay and Baħrija Valley) and Ta’ Ċenċ area and Ramla area. 

Natura 2000 also incorporates special protection areas (SPAs) which support significant numbers of wild birds and their habitats and which are identified by member states according to the obligations of the EU Birds Directive. Malta has 

identified 13 SPAs which today form part of the Natura 2000 network, including Buskett/Girgenti area, Ta’ Ċenċ in Gozo and Filfla. 

  

Obligations which member states have towards such sites are: 

  

• the establishment of necessary conservation measures involving, if need be, the appropriate management plans specifically designed for the sites or integrated into other development plans; 

• appropriate statutory, administrative or contractual measures which correspond to the ecological requirements of the different natural habitat types listed in Annex I and of the species of flora and fauna listed in Annex II of the Habitats 

Directive, present in the sites; 

• appropriate steps to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as the disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated by the member state; 

• an appropriate assessment of any plan or project not directly connected with, or necessary to, the management of the site but which is likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects. Such an appropriate assessment is needed to highlight the implications for the site in view of its conservation objective. The national competent authority for this directive (the Malta Environment and Planning Authority) shall endorse the plan or project only after having ascertained that the conclusions of such assessment regarding the implications for the SAC will not adversely affect the integrity of the SAC concerned. The national competent authority is also obliged, if appropriate, to obtain the opinion of the public. 

• If, in spite of a negative assessment of the implications for the SAC or SPA and in the absence of alternative solutions, a plan or project must nevertheless be carried out for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature, the member state shall take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected. It has to inform the EU Commission of the compensatory measures adopted. 

• Where the site concerned hosts a priority species or a natural habitat type listed in the Habitats Directive, the only considerations which may be raised are those relating to human health or public safety, beneficial consequences of primary 

importance for the environment or further to an opinion from the EU Commission. 

• Undertake surveillance of habitats and species and ensuring strict protection of species of flora and fauna listed in Annex IV of the Habitats Directive. 

• Report to the EU Commission by the national competent authority on the implementation of the directive every six years, incorporating information on conservation measures taken, describing impacts on the conservation status of the species and natural habitats types listed in the directive, measures taken in Natura 2000 sites, besides the key findings of monitoring activities conducted to assess the conservation status of species and natural habitat types of community interest, as all outlined in the directive. The directive also places particular importance on informing the public and making such reports accessible to the public. 

• To improve the ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network, member states are to encourage the management of landscape features that are essential for the migration, dispersal and genetic exchange of wild species and so improve the ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network of protection areas and beyond. 

• The Habitats Directive requires member states to monitor natural habitats and species of community interest. 

• Member states must also handle communication, education and public  awareness to ensure the effective implementation of this directive. Malta had to implement the Habitats Directives from the date of accession, that is May 1, 2004. It seems that a number of ministries are among the many that are not au courant with the Habitats Directive. And I would not be surprised in the least if 

the national competent authority itself is oblivious of such obligations, being so development-oriented and judging from the number of permits issued, including some in Natura 2000 sites.  

The public officer who will be detailed to write Malta’s first six-year report on the implementation of the Habitats Directive will find it easier to paint the sky green. Unfortunately, Mario de Marco, Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, will have to endorse the “achievements” of his predecessor. 

aebaldacchino@gmail.com


BUSKETT – a Special Area of Conservation in the EU

June 21, 2010

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Alfred E Baldacchino

Buskett is of great importance to the Maltese islands from a historical, ecological, economical, educational, and a scientific point of view. The name Buskett is derived from the Italian word Boschetto, which means a small wood.  A part of Buskett is called il-Bosk – the wood.  Buskett is the only locality for Aleppo Pine woodlands, besides having a variety of habitats ranging from maquis, forest remnants, different levels of garigue, and woods typical of watercourses. The English reference to Boschetto, Buskett Gardens, have misled many, not least some politicians lacking ecological background, to conclude that this a garden, as much a garden as San Anton Gardens.

One of Malta’s past colonisers who without doubt were the best that had environmental vision, were the Knights of St John. Without the rich heritage they left us, we would definitely be so much the poorer. Unfortunately, much of this historical heritage is abandoned, neglected and/or vandalised. Buskett is one of the heritage site left to us by the Knights of St John, and was further enhanced by the next colonisers – the British. Today Buskett is protected with a number of regulations. The first legal protection for Buskett was for avifauna and was published as far back as 1932. This was strengthened throughout the years and today Buskett is still protected under the current Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations.

In 1933 a number of trees in Buskett were protected by GN 269, as historical trees of antiquarian importance. In 1996 Buskett was scheduled under the Development Planning Act as an Area of Ecological Importance, a Site of Scientific Importance, an area of high landscape value and a scheduled woodland, by Government Notice 403 of 25 June 1996.  A site plan attached to this Government Notice showed the different levels of protection (level 1, 2, or 3) of Buskett and its surroundings.

During 2001 Buskett was also protected by the regulations for the protection of trees as a tree protected area. Buskett is also an Important Bird Area endorsed by BirdLife International.  Because of such endorsement the government declared as a Special Protection Area, in accordance with the Birds Directive. In 2003 the government proposed Buskett as a Site of Community Interest through Legal Notice 23 of 2003, with the main aim that Buskett be declared a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive to eventually form part of the EU Natura 2000. The Rubble Walls and Rural Structures (Conservation and Maintenance) Regulations 1997, also apply to Buskett. Now this is all very laudable, no doubt about it, but if these regulations are to be worth the paper they are written on, they have to be observed, they have to be implemented and they have to be enforced. There are a number of obligations arising out of European Union legislation, all transposed to local regulations, which have to be taken in consideration with regard to a number of activities.

From an ecological point of view, this means that one cannot bulldoze into Buskett, chainsaw in hand, “pruning” trees, clearing undergrowth, “tidying” walls from creepers, and sweeping dead leaves from beneath wild growing trees. All these activities need to have “prior” clearance from the Competent Authority, and in some cases submit an appropriate assessment of the implications of the operation or activity on the site, in view of the site’s conservation. Consent can be given to the operation or activity only after it has been ascertained that the plan or project will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and if appropriate, after having obtained and taken into account the opinion of the general public and representations made within such reasonable time as the Competent Authority may specify. I remember going to Buskett in my younger days to enjoy the natural  environment surrounded by healthy trees, birds, myriads of butterflies and moths and other invertebrates enriching this unique natural environment we have, and the background sound of water trickling as it flowed through  Buskett, watering Wied il-Luq. This despite the fact that in those days there were no strict regulations for the protection of species and their habitats. When I visit Buskett today, I leave heartbroken: no butterflies, no insects, dead or dying or sawn off trees, dried up springs, and a dying woodland, despite the fact that today there are regulations drafted on international standards, which we, as Maltese, are obliged to honour, not only for our own sake and sanity, but also because of our obligations to the European Union, of which Malta is a Member State. In a statement issued by the Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment, (TMIS, 24 February 2008) it was stated that the “work the ministry intended to do was blocked by MEPA, which claimed the projected work could damage the ecosystem.” It is not very often that MEPA official are praised by this Ministry, especially those in the Environment Protection Directorate, or what is left of it. I would also like to extend my congratulations to such dedicated MEPA officials for their efforts because I can fully understand the difficulties they faced to achieve this.  If it weren’t for such efforts to stop such mismanagement of this EU Special Area of Conservation, today Buskett would probably be competing with San Anton Gardens.  It would be a very good idea if the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Environment were to invite the Prime Minster for a walk around this  sensitive unique ecological gem we have in our country, and the beauty nature has bestowed our tiny island. They could see for themselves the Maltese flora and fauna and what a rich heritage we are responsible for. They would also be able to see first hand what has been done and what has not be done to manage such a Special Area of Conservation, which Malta has proposed to the European Union for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network; this small wood called Buskett can contribute in many different ways for the benefit of the Maltese. It would then be easier for them to understand the need and the importance of a National Biodiversity Strategy, with its action plans and management plans – an obligation arising out of international treaties to which Malta is party. Without such a National Biodiversity Strategy, Buskett, together with other natural important habitats, would be lost forever.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com


Two EU Natura 2000 sites threatened by a TEN-T road at Ghadira

February 21, 2010

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two EU Natura 2000 sites threatened by a TEN-T road at Ghadira

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The recent proposal to build a road at Ghadira is indeed alarming. The reasons advanced to justify such a road sound more like the environmental joke of the week, rivalled only by the same Minster’s environmental statement that the second class water produced by the drainage purification plant has no economic value. No scientific reports or studies were published with regard to the proposed road. Everyone would have loved to see these, rightly so because of other international obligations. The statement by the Minister concerned, as reported in the press, could lead one to think that the plans to build such a road were hurriedly drawn up before the deadline to apply for EU funds expired, not primarily for the sake of the road, but to obtain and utilise funds. Once this news and maps have been officially released by the DOI, one presumes that Cabinet has approved it.

The green and red arrows are inserted by the author, the former indicating the amount of sound and light pollution, disturbance and impact of the new road, and the latter indicating the area that will be at the mercy of strong easterly winds. These were inserted on the original photo montage issued by the DOI showing the new road and the removal of the existent road.

As an EU member State, Malta is bound by the EU legal obligations of the treaty it signed on 1 May 2004. One such legal instrument of this treaty is Council Directive 92/43 EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, or as it is better known, the Habitats Directive. According to Government Notice 112 of 2007, Malta proposed the Ghadira Reserve as a Site of Community Interest (pSCI), which means a site in the biogeographic region (i.e. the Mediterranean) that contributes significantly to the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of a natural habitat type listed in Annex I, or of a species in Annex II of the Habitats Directive, and which may also contribute significantly to the coherence of the EU Natura 2000 network, and/or contributes significantly to the maintenance of biological diversity in the biogeographic region concerned. The Għadira Reserve, together with the other Sites of Community Interests proposed by Government Notice 112 of 2007 (among them also il-Qammieh) was approved by the EU as Special Areas of Conservation. According to the Habitats Directive, a Special Area of Conservation means a site of Community Importance designated by the member State through a statutory, administrative and/or contractual act where the necessary conservation measures are applied for the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of the natural habitats and/or the populations of the species for which the site is designated. Moreover, the Malta Government also declared Ghadira Reserve, through the same Government Notice 112 of 2007, as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the Conservation of Wild Birds, better known as the Birds Directive. Today, Ghadira Reserve forms part of the EU Natura 2000 sites. According to the Habitats Directive, Natura 2000 sites are a coherent European ecological network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). This network enables the natural habitat types and the species’ habitats concerned, to be maintained or where appropriate, restored at a favourable conservation status in their natural range. The Natura 2000 network also includes the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) classified by the Member States according to the Birds Directive.

L-Għadira Natura 2000 site as per G.N. 112 of 2007

Il-Qammieh Natura 2000 site as per G.N. 112 of 2007

As indicated above, the boundary of the Ghadira SAC touches the boundary of another SAC – il-Qammieh, also proposed by the government through Government Notice 112 of 2007, and now endorsed by the EU. The two site plans published with the G.N. 112 of 2007 are being included. Therefore, the new road will cut through two SACs, both forming part of Natura 2000. And such a proposal for such a new road has to follow the procedure of the obligations of the Habitat Directive. Article 6 of the Habitats Directive obliges Member States to “…take appropriate steps to avoid, in the Special Areas of Conservation, the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated, in so far as such disturbance could be significant in relation to the objectives of this Directive.”

Furthermore, Article 6 of the Habitat Directive obliges that: “Any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives. In the light of the conclusions of the assessment of the implications for the site and subject to the provisions of paragraph 4, the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public.” (my emphasis)

Malta is also a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention – the Convention on Wetlands, which is an intergovernmental treaty providing the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. On accession, Malta designated Ghadira as the suitable wetland in its territory for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. As a contracting party, Malta is obliged to formulate and implement its planning to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List and, as far as possible, the wise use of wetlands in its territory.

A number of environmental NGOs, and a substantial number of the public who really and sincerely have the environment at heart, not for any personal gain, have expressed their concern saying that there is no need for such a road. Indeed a comment by one NGO – Din l-Art Helwa – expressed fears that this would open virgin land to speculation. I cannot for a moment imagine such a road with no adjacent “landscaping”, with bungalows and possibly a high-rise tower similar to the one at Mistra. The present four-carriageway road is quite good and adequate enough. The removal of this road would threaten and possibly eliminate the Ghadira Reserve – a Natura 2000 site.

If one were to look at old maps of the area, the present Ghadira Special Area of Conservation was once a salt pan because the sea had access to the deepest inland part of the area, which is below or at sea level. When the strong easterly winds blow, the big waves are kept at bay by the road. It would take only one such strong storm to sweep over and eliminate the Natura 2000 site, including the adjacent surrounding agricultural land. I witnessed such storms twice during the habitat engineering works at Ghadira in the early 1980s. The negative impact of the removal of the present four-carriageway road, would be augmented by those from the building of the new proposed road at the back of the Natura 2000 site, with sound and light pollution, other disturbances and the alteration of the hydrology of the area, besides obliterating pristine natural habitat. These would render the Ghadira Natura 2000 site a mere glorified duck pond, and would also negatively impact il-Qammieh Natura 2000 site too. In brief, the proposed new road does not have any economical benefits, it does not benefit the social environment and it negatively impacts the ecological environment. It is not sustainable, but is merely a “free market concept” without any social or environmental considerations. In the run up to the last general election, and in the first public meeting after the general election, the Prime Minister repeated, wrote and stressed, that the environment is one of the three pillars of his government. I have been trying hard to find a reason, following such a commitment, why the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister responsible for the Environment, as well as the chairman of the National Commission for Sustainable Development (NCSD), is finding it difficult to activate such Commission, which was set up in 2002, in terms of the Environment Protection Act (2001). The main remit of the NCSD is to advocate a national sustainable development across all sectors, to review progress in the achievement of such sustainable development and to build consensus on action needed to achieve further progress, besides being an obligation as a member of the European Union. This lack of action with regard to the NCSD is also further surprising when during a business breakfast organised by the Nationalist Party, The Times (10 September) reported that “Dr Gonzi said the time had come for the pendulum to swing towards the environment. He argued that the country is at a crossroads in terms of how it views the environment and stressed that a strategic decision on sustainable development needs to be taken now.” I am informed that during another recent business breakfast held on 20 November, a member of the NCSD Commission remarked that the Commission has not met for the last two years! The workings of such a Commission would definitely put an end to such environmental antics. It would also be of help to the Prime Minister and his government in honouring their commitments with regard to their environment pillar, both to the local community, to future generations, and also its international obligations. It would also help the people of Malta to avoid embarrassment vis-à-vis their international obligations, especially those of the European Union environment acquis. Present and future generations will doubtlessly ask why EU funds were spent in a way that threaten two Maltese EU Natura 2000 sites. They will also ask why more natural protected environment of international importance was taken to build a road when a four carriageway one existed and was adequate. They will, without doubt, ask which Minister was responsible who approved such a project when historical, archaeological sites and other roads are crying for maintenance and restoration. Certainly they will ask who the Minister was who had the responsibility to protect their environment, which they had lent us, and more so since it was one of the main pillars of his government. Those responsible may not be here to answer such questions.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com