The pruning of the trees in Great Siege Square, Valletta is being investigated by the planning authority which never issued a permit for the pruning to be carried out.

A spokesman for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority said a permit was required to prune ficus trees because of their age. “No permit had been issued by Mepa... Mepa is currently investigating the matter,” the spokesman said.

The issue was raised yesterday during a press conference in the square by BirdLife Malta.

BirdLife claimed that the Environment Landscape Consortium pruned the trees in May without the necessary permit and, as a result, over 7,500 white wagtails ended up without a roosting spot.

However, when contacted Peter Calleja, a horticultural consultant to the government, insisted and reiterated he had been pruning trees for years and trimmed over 1,000 a year, some 100 years old, and was never asked to apply for a permit. He insisted the trees in Great Siege Square had to be pruned to safeguard part of Malta’s heritage, St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Order of the Knights of St John.

“I stand by my decisions. We had to prioritise and Valletta and its heritage buildings take priority over the birds. With all due respect, the birds can find somewhere else to roost,” he said.

Mr Calleja, who was involved in pruning the trees is in the Valletta square, said ficus a very invasive type. While he agreed the trees looked “ghastly” for now, results would start being seen within two years.

BirdLife had expressed its concerns about the consequences of the pruning on the birds when the trees were first trimmed. It yesterday reiterated its concerns after a bird researcher noticed that on Wednesday the trees were being trimmed further.

“It will take many years for the trees to recover and provide foliage comparable to what it was before the first pruning,” Geoffrey Saliba, BirdLife campaigns coordinator, said.

André Raine, BirdLife’s conservation manager, said the white wagtail migrated to Malta in winter from central Europe in search of a warmer climate.

The wagtails had been wintering in Great Siege Square since 1967 and, last year, 7,600 birds were spotted in the area. Every day the birds could travel about 15 kilometres from their base in search of food but then returned to Valletta to roost.

“The destruction of their roost has left these birds without anywhere to rest at night, impacting their chances for survival. Since the pruning, the birds have been observed trying to land on the little remaining foliage and flying around in an attempt to find an alternative roost site.

“It is not known whether the white wagtails, which probably represent the entire Maltese wintering population of this species, will be able to find a new roost site,” Dr Raine said.

Mr Saliba explained the site was listed as a national important bird area by BirdLife Malta. Yet, the ELC went ahead with the pruning without a permit.

Mepa had informed BirdLife the ELC was being investigated for its actions but it had since refused to disclose any details on the case, Mr Saliba said.

He said BirdLife had been in correspondence with Mepa, the Valletta local council and the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs over the importance of the site since 2006. At the time, a single tree in front St John’s Co-Cathedral was identified by the authorities as being a potential danger to the cathedral. BirdLife had agreed to the removal of this tree and was informed none of the trees in Great Siege Square represented a possible danger to the cathedral, he said.

“We call on Mepa to take immediate action against those responsible for this action and hold them accountable for damaging a site of national importance,” Mr Saliba said.

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