In order to safeguard typical Maltese natural environments that can host rich biodiversity, everyone must be more conscious about the important roles played by the diversity of plants and animals found anywhere on these islands. Appreciation brings with it care and respect, which in turn change bad habits into positive actions for biodiversity conservation.

Maltese people and visitors to Malta owe it to themselves and future generations to protect such natural sites against degradation and impoverishment, because once these natural settings are permanently damaged it is extremely expensive and at times impossible to restore.

International Day for Biodiversity, which was celebrated on May 22, this year focused on the contribution of biodiversity for sustainable development, so it is right to promote actions and achievements toward more tangible improvements in local biodiversity conservation. To develop sustainably also means to respect nature’s value and biodiversity’s contribution to our health as much as to our current and future economies.

Attending a course in conservation biology at the University of Malta’s Department of Biology was an eye-opener for us to appreciate how this interdisciplinary conservation science can guide sustainable development and the effective conservation of biodiversity in many ways. Celebrating this International Day for Biodiversity by promoting awareness of why local biodiversity is so valuable to us all is an opportunity not to be missed.

The Mediterranean region contains a rich diversity of flora and fauna. It is also home to 455 million people, which puts pressure on the surrounding natural environment. Apart from typical Mediterranean biodiversity the Maltese islands are home to unique endemic species. However, being small in size and densely populated these islands are faced with the challenge of conserving biodiversity, as wild patches of land are shrunk, transformed and fragmented.

Among the various natural Maltese locations that need to be safeguarded against anthropogenic impacts we studied Lunzjata Valley in the limits of Kerċem in Gozo, Wied Anġlu, a valley between Naxxar and Għargħur and a small field in the middle of Mosta, which are contributing to the survival of diversity of life forms constituting biodiversity.

Lunzjata Valley

Lunzjata Valley is of great natural importance. Its freshwater springs support certain endemic and indigenous species of flora and fauna which are part of the Maltese heritage. Due to the fact that such valley watercourses in the Maltese islands are quite rare, the site is protected under EU regulations and is a Natura 2000 site.

The valley serves as a unique haven for lush vegetation throughout the year. The watercourse is home to the Maltese freshwater crab, commonly known as il-Qabru (Potamon fluviatile lanfrancoi) and the painted frog (Discoglossus pictus). These two endemic species are protected under Maltese legislation and hence their safeguarding against habitat degradation or capture is crucial. This protection also requires re­search and monitoring to improve their survival and their habitats.

Other fauna found include various dragonflies and damselflies, grasshoppers, mayflies and beetles, flies, wasps and bees. The latter are very well known for their invaluable economic contribution worldwide due to pollination of crops and wild flora. Lunzjata’s perennial freshwater springs attract many different bird species such as crakes, rails, egrets, and herons together with harriers, honey buzzards, flycatchers, warblers, chats, thrushes, finches and buntings.

Apart from its freshwater springs, the valley offers diverse habitats for different species to thrive. On each side of the valley, one finds some terraced cultivated fields, whereas along the slopes of hard Coralline limestone, one finds typical maquis vegetation. Some examples of maquis vegetation found include the Aleppo pine or Siġra taz-Żnuber (Pinus halepensis), the Lentisk or Deru (Pistaccia lentiscus), Carob or Ħarrub (Ceratonia siliqua) and Olive or Żebbuġa (Olea europea).

Valleys are particularly susceptible to pollution and degradation by waste disposal. Such unfortunate anthropogenic influences may permanently change the structure and function of this ecosystem, and negatively affect the survival of species typically found in such valleys. Maintenance and conservation monitoring of valleys is important so as to avoid loss of biodiversity.

Wied Anġlu

Wied Anġlu has been protected as part of a Nature Reserve since 2001. It has many different kinds of plants and animals, some of which are rare and so they are protected and cannot be harmed or picked from their natural environment.

A quarry right next to the valley produces a lot of noise and vibrations that travel through the ground. It also throws dust onto the valley and its ecosystem. In addition, people are likely to throw their own waste into the valley, such as car tyres, glass bottles and plastics. All these deteriorate the quality of the natural environment as the waste dumped takes many years to degrade and may also be harmful to species inhabiting the valley.

Some of the rare plants found in this valley include the Great Sage (Phlomis fruticosa), which is a species of sage plant that was rated by Edwin Lanfranco in the 1989 National Red Data Book as being in danger of becoming extinct. Another is the Evergreen Rose (Rosa sempervirens). Wied Anġlu is one of the few places where this shrub grows.

However, as many plant and animal species are not studied or monitored the real status of biodiversity in local protected areas is often not known or outdated. Conservation would require support for sustained research to update management and policies.

A small pocket of nature in Mosta

A small patch of unbuilt land on the outskirts of Mosta and Ta’ Qali, forms a natural site that is in itself becoming quite rare in many Maltese towns. Despite being one of the most populated towns in Malta, a limited number of such natural pockets can still be found in Mosta.

Unfortunately, the area was used to park large, heavy load vehicles. This has resulted in the loss of many plants so that some of the area has become bare. Nonetheless, the land is now starting to regenerate very slowly and is used mostly for walking dogs.

Many different plants and animals were found in this small field. Although no rare species were noted, some typical Maltese flora was seen. For example, the Crown Daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium) that grows into a large shrub with dark green leaves and bright yellow flowers. The Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a shrub that can grow up to three metres, with thin leaves and stalked flowers, and is recognised by its sweet scent and taste. The Cornish Mallow (Lavatera cretica) is a plant with hand-shaped leaves and small violet flowers.

The white flowered Cleavers/ Goosegrass (Galium aparine) are known for the hook-like hairs covering the fruit, used for attachment to animal fur for dispersal. In contrast to the flowering plants that depend on insects for pollination, the Hare’s foot/Mediterranean Plan­tain (Plantago lagopus) is adapted to using the wind for carrying out its pollination, to develop its seeds.

Animals are also important in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Flowers are made to attract insects such as the White Spotted Barbary Bug (Oxythyrea funesta), the Maltese Honey Bee (Apis mellifera ruttneri) and the Common Paper Wasp (Polistes omissus), so that the male pollen sticks to their body, as they collect food, which is then carried to the female organ on a different flower of the same species for pollination. Although we immediately consider them as pests, flies like the House Fly (Musca domestica) and the Green Bottle Fly (Lucillia sericata) are nonetheless necessary to break down dead and decaying matter, such as dog scat, and in doing so they return nutrients to the soil, which are then taken up by the plants, which in turn supply nourishment to animals.

The authors wish to thank conservation biologist Adriana Vella for her inspiring lectures and conservation work.

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