Salina Nature Reserve. ©Aron Tanti
The Salina Wetland – a story of restoration in Malta
By BirdLife Malta with collaborative editing by MedWet
August 28, 2023
Wetlands are amongst the rarest habitats of the Maltese Islands. Suffice it to say that they cover less than 0.5% of the entire territory. Wetlands are home to a large variety of unique flora and fauna species, with some of these species totally dependent on this fragile habitat. Malta’s largest wetlands are associated with BirdLife Malta, as the organization was responsible for restoring both the Ghadira Nature Reserve and later the Simar Nature Reserve.
The reserves, protected by both national and international legislation, are Natura 2000 sites and also Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites). They are home to large populations of the Mediterranean Killifish, Malta’s national fish, which in turn support iconic bird species like the Common Kingfisher, the Little Bittern, and the Black-winged Stilt; the latter has also been recorded breeding in both wetlands.
Given the visible results achieved by BirdLife Malta, it was not surprising, when in 2018, the NGO was handed the management of yet another Natura 2000 site, this time in the form of the Salina area, including the country’s largest salt pans, an area of degraded and derelict marshland and an area of rich garrigue. The management agreement sees the Environment Resources Authority oversee the management plan of the area which is delivered by BirdLife Malta with the financial support of another government entity Ambjent Malta.
One of the most pressing tasks faced by BirdLife Malta was undoubtedly the restoration of the wetland area. Years ago, large quantities of debris, including construction waste, were dumped into the area creating large mounds of earth which meant the area no longer supported a water body save for a small pond.
Additionally, several species of endangered flora and fauna were obliterated and several Tamarix africana trees, typical of such habitat also destroyed. Invasive alien species like the Acacia trees took over most of the site and vandalism was the order of the day. Additionally, the area was subject to continuous disturbance, ranging from fishermen clearing the reed bed to fish to people walking their dogs and not keeping them on a leash practically disturbing all fauna present.
Before formulating restoration plans BirdLife Malta undertook several studies to gather important information required for the finalization of the same plans. A hydrologist was contracted to study the water flows in the area and any interaction with an adjacent seawater channel known as the Sukkursu. At the same time, accurate flora mapping of the area was conducted on a seasonal basis, so that mitigation measures would be undertaken during the ensuing works, thus conserving the few remaining important flora in the area.
With all this information now at hand, came the exciting part, when accompanied by an architect, plans for the restoration of the water body started. Countless meetings and on-site visits led to the final plans which would see an approximate water body of around 2,000 square metres take shape. These plans were submitted to the local planning authority, and after positive reviews, the green light for the works to start was granted in June 2022.
The next challenge was securing funding for the entire project. An application for funding was successfully submitted to the Donors’ Initiative for Mediterranean Freshwater Ecosystems (DIMFE). Created in 2021 by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and Aage V. Jenson Charity Foundation, the DIMFE is an initiative dedicated to conserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems in the Mediterranean, including rivers, lakes, marshes and peat bogs. The foundation covered the majority of the projected expenses.
Once the necessary planning and environmental permits were issued, and work contractors secured, the work started in earnest. The first tasks involved fencing the area in question. Whilst not aesthetically pleasing, the fence is crucial for a variety of reasons, but namely to ensure in this small area nature is left as unhindered as possible, away from the pressures created by continued human presence. In a small and densely populated island like Malta this pressure can never be underestimated.
With the fencing set up and the site secured next in was the heavy machinery needed to displace the material and create a network of canals and shallow water pools that are characteristic of wetland habitats.
The material was piled up into imposing soil embankments which once planted, they will serve a dual purpose: offering food and shelter to of fauna species and acting as a barrier to isolate noise and light pollution. It took a whole five months of work but finally the heavy machines moved out of the site and nature could start its regeneration process. In parallel to this, work started on the existing Tamarisk trees, some of which were diligently pruned to ensure they suffer no damage during works.
What followed was an intense tree planting programme. In total, around 700 tree and shrub species were planted. The majority were Tamarisk trees and Chaste Trees, both well-suited to growing in brackish conditions. On the other parts of the embankments, a hedge row was planted using indigenous trees, including Mediterranean Buckthorn, Lentisk, and Judas trees. For the first years these trees will be supported by a drip irrigation system purposely set up.
Fortunately, the rains persisted well into spring 2023, undoubtedly helping to wash away the scars and initiate the process of nature’s regeneration. And it did so in a very short time! The rare Ruppia species spread quickly in the water, as the first large shoals of Mediterranean Killifish fry were sighted. Common Sandpipers, Little Egrets, and Common Kingfisher were all spotted in the shallow wetland waters.
The reed bed, now protected from indiscriminate trampling, flourished. A small canal with predominantly freshwater conditions attracted dragonflies. The calls and songs of the Reed Warblers soon resonated from the reed bed, and one pair was also recorded breeding there for the first time in many years.
The work of BirdLife Malta did not stop there. Two small bird-watching hides were set up on-site, playing an important role in allowing the public to enjoy the restored wetland without causing disturbances to the on-site ecosystem. Proud of the work carried out, BirdLife Malta has to once more thank DIMFE for the faith shown in this project and we will now take the back seat as we await nature’s restoration process.