Alfred E Baldacchino, MEPA’s Nature Protection Unit Assistant Director, answers some questions on preserving how the Unit is preserving Malta’s flora and fauna through the EU Habitats Directive. In addition to protecting a number of areas through the Natura 2000 initiative, the programme also has a very valuable contribution to promising eco-tourism sector
Lately we have heard quite a lot about Natura 2000 sites in connection with the European Union. What exactly are these sites?
A Natura 2000 site is an area, declared under the EU Habitats Directive, that will be managed and protected as an important nature area, according to the obligations outlined in the said EU Directive. Certain measures are applied for the maintenance and/or restoration at favourable conditions of the natural habitats and species populations in order to ensure their survival.
Natura 2000 is thus a network of European protected areas that support habitats as well as species that are either important and/or threatened. Such habitats and species are of European importance and they are protected according the European Union Habitats Directive and the Wild Birds Directive.
A Natura 2000 site is referred to as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), since such a site is proposed for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network due to it meriting special conservation measures. A Natura 2000 site can also be designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), when the site is known to be particularly important for the conservation of wild bird species.
The combination of SACs and SPAs for the Maltese Islands contributes to the establishment of the National Ecological Network.
What is the progress in the designation of Natura 2000 sites for the Maltese Islands?
Each Member State of the European Union has the obligation of contributing to the creation of Natura 2000 in proportion to the representation within its territory of the natural habitat types and the habitats of species specified in the Annexes of the Habitats Directive. Consequent to this obligation, a list of the selected sites, together with information required on each site, was forwarded to the Commission by Malta proposing such sites for the Maltese Islands. Collation of data was carried out by MEPA officials with the assistance of national experts. Consequently, the national list of sites which is to form part of the EU Natura 2000 Network, is currently being reviewed by the European Commission.
What makes a site a candidate for a Natura 2000 site?
A site may be proposed as a candidate Natura 2000 site when it supports natural habitat types and habitats of species of community interest, which are listed in the Annexes of the Habitats Directive.
The natural habitats and species that are listed include vulnerable, rare and endangered habitats and species. Among such habitats, which are of importance to the Maltese Islands, are sand dunes; whereas species include endemic species such as Malta’s National Plant (Widnet il-Bahar) Maltese Rock-centaury Palaeocyanus crassifolius and the door-snails Lampedusa imitatrix (Dussies ta’ Malta) and Lampedusa melitensis (Dussies ta’ l-Irdum).
How many sites have been proposed and what special ecological features do they support?
To date, 23 sites have been designated as candidate Special Areas of Conservation, six of which have also been declared as Special Protection Areas given that they are considered to be importance areas for birds.
Special ecological features that one may find in the selected Natura 2000 sites include Old Holm Oak forest remnants as at Il-Ballut (l/o San Pawl il-Bahar), Pine and Oak woodland as at Buskett, Garrigue and Phrygana as at Dingli Cliffs and Comino, Sand dunes as at Ramla tat-Torri and Ramla l-Hamra, Marshlands as at Is-Simar and at L-Ghadira and Coastal Cliffs such as those on the west side of mainland Malta.
The European Union Council Directive 92/43/ EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna - better known as the Habitats Directive - obliges Member States to designate Natura 2000 sites. What are the obligations of Member States vis-à-vis such sites?
The sites submitted to the Commission as candidate Special Areas of Conservation shall be periodically reviewed by the Commission in order to assess the achievement of the set objectives for Natura 2000 sites.
Member States are to endeavour to improve the ecological coherence of Natura 2000 by maintaining and/or developing features of the landscape which are of major importance for wild fauna and flora. Member States are to contribute to the maintenance or re-establishment, at a favourable conservation status, and also undertake surveillance where appropriate, of the natural habitats and species of importance.
In addition to this, the European Union Directive on the conservation of Wild Birds 79/409/EEC requires Member States to protect naturally occurring wild birds and their habitats, mainly by designating and managing Special Protection Areas. In this case, Malta has the exclusive responsibility for such sites and the Commission will only take action if it deems that insufficient designation has been made.
How does Malta benefit from the designation of Natura 2000 sites?
The designation of such protected sites is important in view of the fact that the ecological character of our islands is conserved in those areas of great ecological value. It is also true that such protection preserves the aesthetic values of our islands, especially by minimising negative impacts that can be brought about by certain human activities. Such characteristics are important in a social context since they aid in preserving Malta’s characteristics and hence that of its inhabitants. One can also view this as an economical benefit, since the aesthetic preservation of our natural environment can also contribute towards ecotourism.
Furthermore, since EU Member states are obliged to maintain such sites in a favourable conservation status, monitoring of such sites is necessary, as well as restoration, where appropriate. This shall involve scientific studies that will aid in furthering education in connection with local biodiversity.
As a result of designating Natura 2000 sites, Malta is eligible to further funds, mostly from the EU. In fact, EU funding has been secured by MEPA for at least five projects, of which three are related to marine areas. Some of these funds are available to farmers and users of land, in particular in relation to agriculture and rural development. Other funds have been provided by the Council of Europe and through co-financing under the UK bilateral assistance programme.
Acknowledgement and thanks to Marie Therese Gambin and Darrin T Stevens, who also contributed to this interview. For further information one may consult the MEPA website www.mepa.org.mt or send an email to email@example.com.