About 3,000 pine saplings were destroyed on Tuesday night when an entire area beneath the Red Tower, in Mellieha, known as Foresta 2000, was systematically wiped out by vandals.

Trees and shrubs which were planted over the past three years in an afforestation project involving Din l-Art Helwa, BirdLife and the Environment Ministry's Parks, Afforestation and Countryside Restoration Department were uprooted, their branches broken or sawn off one by one. Part of a newly-built rubble wall was also spoiled.

The extent of the damage shows that the culprits had planned the act because it was next to impossible that an entire hillside could have been reduced to such a state by a single person or a small group.

Some of the trees planted three years ago had grown to almost two metres high. Most cannot be replanted or saved. Some had been donated by the Italian government and the Corpo Forestale had paid visits to see the progress of the site.

Din l-Art Helwa president Martin Galea, who was on site yesterday, told journalists the damage was estimated between Lm40,000 and Lm50,000, expressing great disappointment that three years of work had been ruined.

"This is a slap in the face to all Maltese. The authorities have to find and stop these people before the acts escalate and somebody gets hurt," he said.

According to Mr Galea, this was organised cultural vandalism. The systematic way in which the act had been carried out showed that the people who did it knew the area well or had been monitoring it for some time.

He said Din l-Art Helwa would like to express solidarity with BirdLife which had received a number of threats in recent months.

In March, spent car engine oil was poured into ditches surrounding the Ghadira nature reserve. On that occasion vandals had also thrown oil-filled plastic bottles far out into the ponds and reservoir.

Tolga Temuge, from BirdLife, has been informing the government and the police about the spate of incidents but nobody has been caught so far. He said on that occasion, the police had not taken fingerprints that could be seen on the bottles containing oil.

"The fact that nobody has been caught gives out the message that people can carry out vandalism with impunity," Mr Temuge said. Environment NGO Gaia Foundation called the act an atrocity against nature. Gaia's Rudolf Ragonesi said such spiteful acts were nothing less than a manifestation of "unbridled hatred and contempt for nature, causing substantial harm to our islands and to future generations".

The foundation called on the authorities to bring the culprits to book, and to allocate more resources to substantially increase police patrols to prevent such acts.

The Environment Ministry condemned the senseless act saying most of the trees had been planted by schoolchildren, companies under the Tree for You scheme and donations from the Italian government.

The ministry said the act would not discourage the government from pursuing further embellishment projects but would do its utmost to mitigate the effect of this vandalism fast. On its part, BICREF expressed its indignation at what it termed the terrible act of vandalism on the Foresta 2000 project.

It is incredible what human stupidity and selfishness can do. Is this the gift to our children and natural heritage? Bicref asked in a statement.

In April, a stone structure erected at a bird conservation site in Mellieha was reduced to a pile of rubble. Earlier, spent oil was spilt over the rocky beach next to Wignacourt Tower, St Paul's Bay.

In March, a bus shelter, a farmhouse and a stretch of rubble wall close to the Neolithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra were vandalised when graffiti relating to restrictions on hunting and trapping were sprayed.

Some Lm2,000 had to be forked out to repair the damage caused by vandals at Howard Gardens, in Rabat, in February. That same month, a waste bring-in site in Qormi was set on fire.

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