In the past, woodland covered much of the Maltese Islands. When people arrived 7000 years ago, they cleared the woodland to make space for agriculture and pasture, and to use the wood as fuel for their cooking fires. The forest disappeared, and with it went an entire ecosystem rich in flora and fauna. Today, just two or three very small and isolated groves of possibly original forest remain. In 1995 BirdLife Malta came up with the idea of regrowing an area of mixed Mediterranean woodland, as a lasting gift to the forthcoming Third Millennium. In this way, we would be partly restoring a habitat that the country had lost down the centuries.
Marfa Ridge was ideally located for a habitat-restoration project of this kind. Much of the south-facing slope west of the main Cirkewwa road consisted of long-abandoned terraced fields that had lost much of their soil through erosion, and had in many areas degraded into poor steppe of little ecological diversity.
Being close to the popular beach at Ghadira, the area was in permanent danger of speculation and development, such as the tourist complex (now in ruins) that was built right in the middle of the slope, permanently scarring the landscape of the area. An afforestation initiative on site would hinder any proposal for further development.
Importantly, the site also lies within the 500m no-hunting buffer zone surrounding Ghadira nature reserve.
The site is also of historical value, with several structures relating to past coastal military defence, not least the massive 17th century St Agatha Tower that dominates the ridge.
In 2004, BirdLife Malta invited Din L-Art Helwa and PARK to join in the project and form a partnership to manage and fund Foresta 2000. A forest ranger was employed to manage and monitor the site.
One of the first tasks was to reduce illegal human activity that was damaging the site, namely offroading, dumping, hunting, camping and squatting. The area was also regularly grazed by goats.
To limit vehicle access, post fences or drystone walls were erected around parts of the project site, with gates at four entrances. A large erosion gully that had formed by vehciles offroading down the clay slope at It-Taflija was filled in, and further loss of soil was halted with the construction of a series of low drystone walls that effectively terraced this part of the slope. The soil in this area was further stabilised with the planting of trees and grasses, the vegetation cover also minimises rapid water runoff, soaking up and retaining humidity further into spring.
The planting plan provided for a mosaic of woodland and maquis, while existing areas of garrigue, steppe and farmland were to be preserved for a richer biodiversity. Planting was carried out in phases, starting at It-Taflija on the east and moving west to Is-Sdieri and beyond almost to the cliffs at Ic-Cumnija.
|Members of the public helping to replant trees in Oct 2007, following the destruction of 3000 young trees by vandals earlier that year. Photograph by Victor Falzon|
Thousands of young trees and shrubs have been planted every autumn and winter for a number of years, many of them sponsored by individuals, groups or institutions, especially schools. For the first few years the young trees are watered in summer to help them survive; to facilitate watering, a network of underground pipes was laid. Grass growth around the young trees is controlled regularly in order to minimise the fire hazard. To date, about 20,000 trees and shrubs have been planted, with little space for further planting left.
Meanwhile, many collapsed drystone walls were rebuilt, public footpaths marked out, and a small information centre opened next to St Agatha Tower.
As the woodland matures, less watering and grass control will be required, as nature is gradually left to take over.