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Established by the EU Commission, Natura 2000 is the largest coordinated network of its kind in the world. Its mission is to monitor protected areas throughout Europe and to ensure a stable and protected haven for valuable threatened species and natural habitats.
Natura 2000 sites throughout the EU cover 18% of the total land territory and 8% of its marine territory as it stretches throughout the 27 Member Countries. Aiming to ensure the long-term survival of species and habitats, the sites are listed under the Birds Directive or the Habitats Directive.
Contrary to some concepts, the sites are not restricted reservations, although a number are privately owned. The sites are open to the public but the relative authorities are urged to ensure the public does not damage the environment or effect detrimental environmental changes to suit their own preferences.
In a nutshell, the idea is to preserve them as they are and have been over the centuries and therefore the public is urged to blend in and appreciate the environment they are enjoying without harming it. The theme is that humanity works with nature rather than being detrimental to it.
Despite the small size of Malta and Gozo and the even smaller islands of Comino and Filfla, there are 34 Natura 2000 sites spread throughout the islands regarded to be of international importance, many of them also containing rare and endemic species, flora and fauna.
These are monitored and regulated by the Environmental and Resources Authority. The sites include gardens, salt pans, cliffs and caves, inland seas, bays and beaches. The 34 land sites cover 42 square kilometres, that is, 13.5% of the Maltese Islands’ land area.
There are also five marine sites. These, however, only cover 1.63% of the territorial waters of the islands which stretch to 11,672 kilometres squared.
The Natura 2000 sites include Ir-Ramla l-Hamra (i.e. Red Sandy Bay), ta’ Cenc and Wied il-Mielah (i.e. Salt Valley) in Gozo, as well as the whole of Comino and Filfla.
Some sites safeguarded by Environmental and Resources Authority and others by Heritage Malta, nine Malta and Gozo sites received the 2020 Travellers’ Choice Award in recognition of their outstanding environment as well as their quality.
The results of this coveted award programme were based on the quality and quantity of millions of reviews, opinions and ratings collected on Tripadvisor throughout 2019, prior to the havoc caused by the Covid pandemic.
The sites were:
The megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim and Ġgantija (in Gozo);
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum;
St Paul’s Catacombs;
Fort St Angelo and Fort St Elmo (including the National War Museum);
The National Museum of Archaeology, the Palace Armoury and the Ta’ Kola Windmill.
Some of the Natura 2000 sites have an outstanding history. The Salina Salt Pans were dug out and apportioned in the Middle Ages during the times of the Knights of St John and are still very well preserved today and very much in use – a natural production of sea salt without chemicals.
The underground cave at Ghar Dalam (the Cave of Darkness) is direct evidence of Malta having been linked to the African coast in the echelons of time where bones of typical African animals were found but these were not found in Sicily denoting there has never been an actual land link with Sicily. This also includes a dried river bed.
Il-Maqluba at Qrendi (The Upside Down Area) is another fascination that resulted in a sink hole created by eroding underground waters causing a collapse into a large subsided hole. Legend in the distant past said this was the site of a village whose inhabitants became loose in their morality and blasphemous and in his wrath God scooped out a hole and overturned the village and buried all the sinners alive.
A number of cliff areas and valleys are included in the list and notably The Cittadella in Gozo recently renovated as well as the Xlendi Valley and the Xlendi Cliffs. Buskett Gardens and Girgenti with its palace stand out as well as the Blue Grotto and the minute St Paul’s Islands, said to be the area where St Paul was shipwrecked in 60 AD but nowadays highly disputed as these are in the north of Malta and many maintain he was actually shipwrecked south of Malta.
“Turn whichever way and you remain in the same spot”
When placed in a situation where it is not possible to exit from positively.