In the early light that filters through the cold morning air from a huge yellow-white sun still hanging low over the horizon to the east, the tiny chapel of Tal-Kunċizzjoni, sitting atop the cliffs at L-Irdum tal-Madonna, looks like it could be on a hill outside a little Mexican border-town, rather than the cliffs of a small Mediterranean island.
The rocky landscape around the chapel is decidedly desert-like, with succulent spiky leaves of agave and aloe plants protruding from between the stones and cactus-like prickly pears dotted around. Small trees, bent and gnarled, cling to the ground to keep from being blown away in the strong winds that blow in from the sea.
The warm sunbeams highlight the cross on top of the chapel and turn the sand-coloured stone gold for a moment. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a tall man ride into this scene on the back of a pale horse.
A gull cries as it flies overhead and several sparrows chatter and chase each other across the car park and into acacia trees.
Then, around the corner of the chapel, stepping out of the long shadows and into the bright sunlight, which glints off the badges they wear on their chests, comes a group of schoolchildren, aged between 10 and 11, to look at them, armed with gloves and black bin-liners, attentively scouring the ground and stopping to pick up bits of litter, occasionally racing against one another to get to the next bit first.
These kids are here to help clean up L-Aħrax. Their badges mark them as Rangers. They are not alone. They are here with their teachers from Mellieħa Primary and Mosta Primary B and they have joined representatives of Birdlife Malta and Bank of Valletta for an activity which is part of the environmental education programme, Dinja Waħda. This activity was carried out with the support of the European Commisssion Representation in Malta.
But why clear up litter? And why here? In the words of one of the young Rangers: “We are stopping rats from coming here and eating the birds and their eggs.”
The birds are the two species of shearwater, the Yelkouan and Scopoli’s (Cory’s) Shearwaters, which nest in colonies on the side of the cliffs below us. Malta is an important breeding place for both species. The Maltese Islands are home to 10 per cent of the global Yelkouan Shearwater population and five per cent of the global population of Scopoli’s Shearwater.
Approximately 500 pairs of Yelkouans breed at the L-Irdum tal-Madonna colony every year.
It isn’t only seabirds that enjoy the wild natural environment of the sea-cliffs. L-Aħrax is a popular spot for campers and picnickers, especially in summer, and unfortunately lots of people leave a mess of uneaten food, packaging and other rubbish behind them. This attracts rats.
It might look impossibly dangerous for a person to climb down from the top of the cliffs, but the rats manage it. They find the nests of the shearwaters and eat the eggs, or even the young chicks themselves. The Dinja Waħda Rangers have come to clean up the rubbish and keep the rats at bay.
But it’s not all about seabirds and rats. As they walk around the site, guided by Warden Fiona Burrows, the children learn about the different plants and habitats: wild thyme growing on the rocky garigue – not in flower now, but covered with bright purple blossoms which attract bees and butterflies in the spring. They hear about the Ocellated Skink and much more common Maltese wall lizard. Then the children start looking for these creatures in the low rubble walls.
L-Irdum tal-Madonna is one of Malta’s richest Natura 2000 protected sites. There are more than 26,000 Natura 2000 sites in Europe, covering 18 per cent of the continent and surrounding seas. Malta has 35 Natura 2000 sites (34 on land and one at sea), which cover 13.25 per cent of Maltese territory.
The cliffs are home to rocky garigue and sand dune habitats, numerous native plants and animals, and some notable endemic species, such as the Pyramidal Orchid, found only in the Maltese Islands. Thanks to the incredible biodiversity supported by the different habitats the site is protected as a Special Area of Conservation, as well as being a Special Protective Area for its important breeding colonies of shearwaters.
The desert agaves, the acacias and eucalyptus, which have been planted here over the years, are actually invasive species that don’t belong here at all and pose another threat to the indigenous plants and habitats.
Back at school the pupils will be sharing their experience and what they have learned by giving a presentation on conservation in Natura 2000 sites.
Thanks to their school’s participation in this activity these children are helping to increase public awareness of Maltese nature and the threats of human activities. They provide a shining example to the rest of us about how we should care for our natural environment. Even doing something as simple as taking your rubbish away with you and disposing of it correctly can make a valuable contribution to conservation.
Dinja Waħda is Birdlife Malta’s and Bank of Valletta’s environmental education programme for primary schools, carried out in collaboration with the Directorate for Quality Standards in Education.
For more information about the Dinja Waħda environmental education programme, visit www.birdlifemalta.org.