The government on Saturday released maps showing picnic areas at the Miżieb and Aħrax woodland areas, as it defended a controversial deal granting the hunters' federation guardianship of the two Mellieħa sites. 

In a statement, the government said the agreement merely "formalised and regularised" what had already been in practice for decades and insisted the public would enjoy the same "free access" to the reserves as it always had. 

The three-year agreement, handing over the management and operation of the sites, despite public outrage, to Federazzjoni Kaċċaturi Nassaba Konservazzjonisti, was signed in a private meeting on Friday.

Its terms on public access are vague, stating only that the sites will be accessible except during specific hours in the hunting seasons: which are open for two weeks in spring and five months between September and January. 

A Memorandum of Understanding concerning the two sites makes even less specific commitments and only states that FKNK must ensure public access to "all public passageways and thoroughfares". 

The government insisted on Saturday that public roads and passages would remain open at all times and new camping sites would be added to the existing picnic and camping areas, which new obligations would be imposed on the FKNK to ensure the environment was safeguarded.

It published maps of picnic areas at the two sites, though it is not clear whether these areas will benefit from different terms of access to the rest of the sites, which together account for an area five times the size of Buskett.  

"The Aħrax and Miżieb reserves have been administered by the FKNK, under different administrations, for the past 34 years," the government said. "The Federation, with the help of its members and volunteers, had always taken great care of the area, by cultivating trees, and mantaing kilometres of rubble wall. The result of such care can be seen in both areas where there are many endemic trees and flora and fauna that can be enjoyed by all those who visit or pass by."

Denying claims of secrecy by arguing that the terms of the deal had been published in full, the government said the agreement was no different to that signed with Birdlife Malta to administer the Salini nature reserve, close to Miżieb and approximately 18 times smaller.  

"One stark difference between the Miżieb/Aħrax agreement and that of Salini is that Birdlife receive financial assistance every year to administer and safeguard the Salini reserve and a number of government employees help with the management," the government said. 

"In contrast, the Miżieb/Aħrax reserves will be administered solely by FKNK, who will shoulder all management expenses. These include the safeguarding of the natural habitat, taking good care of trees, maintenance of rubble walls, etc. The Government will not be providing any financial aid."

The deal has been slammed by a coalition of more than 60 NGOs, with a protest planned for Sunday afternoon in Miżieb. The signing ceremony was originally scheduled for that day but was secretly moved forward to Friday after news of the wrapped-up deal broke on Wednesday. 

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