'Balance' sought as ficus by St John's face the chop

'Balance' sought as ficus by St John's face the chop

Some trees in front of St John`s Co-Cathedral may have to go if it is proven that their roots will damage the new paving works in the area. Photo: Jason Borg.

Some trees in front of St John`s Co-Cathedral may have to go if it is proven that their roots will damage the new paving works in the area. Photo: Jason Borg.

Before deciding which of the trees near St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta will have to go, the Resources and Infrastructure Ministry will meet NGOs and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority.

Being sources of shade for passers-by and home to White Wagtails - a bird species which chooses the Valletta trees to roost - the tall ficus have extended their thick roots into the historic cisterns under the square, fuelling concerns they may damage them.

A ministry spokesman said yesterday discussions would lead to a determination of which trees can stay, which can be uprooted and planted elsewhere and which trees will have to be cut down.

Explaining that ministry personnel met representatives of BirdLife Malta yesterday, the spokesman denied that the trees would be chopped down arbitrarily. The decision on whether to cut down the trees would depend on any damage the roots have done to cisterns.

Other considerations are whether or not the trees are likely to damage the new paving being laid nearby by the works division and the impact of the trees on the architectural features of the Co-Cathedral.

"It's about striking a balance," the spokesman said, explaining that the cisterns had been surveyed by a structural engineer and that discussions with Mepa and the agricultural department have still to take place.

BirdLife Malta director Tolga Temuge said when contacted that the authorities and BirdLife were exchanging information and ideas to save these important heritage sites - one national, the other natural.

The trees were an important bird area for the White Wagtails which migrate from European breeding grounds every year to spend the winter in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and northeastern Africa.

The Valletta roost is used between end-October and end-March by birds flying in from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and Sweden, he said.

The latest roost count on January 13, by BirdLife, found 4,352 individual birds to be using the area. The maximum roost count was 5,335 two years earlier.

Along with the trees in Great Siege Square, in front of the law courts, and those to the west of St John's Co-Cathedral, the trees qualify as a nationally Important Bird Area as they represent the largest roost, and possibly the only main roost, of this species on the island, Mr Temuge added.

Last week, the rumour mill was churning out the story that the same fate might befall the trees as happened to the ficus removed recently from near the Valletta market in Merchants Street.

A report in another section of the press on Sunday suggested the roots may crack the Co-Cathedral's floor if the trees are not removed, stating that the government was concerned about the reaction from environmentalists.

When contacted, Valletta Rehabilitation Project Executive Coordinator Ray Bondin said there was no proof the roots would extend beneath St John's.

The VRC, he said, had thoroughly surveyed the cisterns' walls where the roots had penetrated and there was no evidence they were damaging the Co-Cathedral.

"St John's is mostly built on solid rock, so there are no vaults through which the roots could penetrate the church as has been suggested," Dr Bondin said.

When it was pointed out that the trees were planted at the beginning of the 20th century and were not part of the original urban environment when the church was built, Dr Bondin said this was true for most European cities.

In most cities, he explained, trees were planted in the past 150 years or so, but were now part of the urban environment.

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