Maltese summer time is often characterised by the abundance of fresh summer fruits, and perhaps one of the much sought after fruit is that of the Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, Bajtar tax-Xewk). The prickly pear fruit, covered all over by minute spines offers much more than what meets the eye.
The tree is adapted to thrive in dry conditions – as a succulent it can absorb and retain water efficiently. The leaves are reduced to thin spines, and the stems’ waxy surface helps the plant to reduce water losses from transpiration.
Together with several other plant species, such as potato, peppers and tomatoes, the Prickly Pear was brought over to Europe from America, following the discovery of the American continent in 1492. In Malta, the tree was probably introduced in 16th century and by time, it became naturalised and part of the agricultural landscape. The first reference to the Prickly Pear in Malta dates back to 1750.
Between August and September, the typical prickly pear fruit is ready to be harvested. Careful peeling of the thick outer skin exposes the edible fruit with a bright red, wine-red, green or yellow-orange flesh containing many tiny seeds. In the Maltese Islands, the fruits are differentiated by colour. The red variety is locally called Aħmar or Ingliż (British) due to the British army’s uniform colour. The white strain is locally called Abjad-Franċiż (French) in reference to the white flag held by the French to give up Malta to the British. The other yellow fruit variety is called Isfar-Malti (Maltese). Another variety called Tax-xitwa, has a dark-coloured fruit which ripens between October and December. Unless picked by man, animal or bird, the edible fruits remain on the plant.
The fruit and leaves of prickly pears can be eaten, provided that the skin and prickles are removed. The fruit is useful in terms of its health benefits, being rich in anti-oxidants and Vitamin C. If we eat three of the fruit a day, our daily requirement of vitamin C would be met. Whilst the Prickly pear has been used in traditional folk medicine, nowadays the cactus, fruits and stems are the subject of numerous studies due to their positive health-related properties.
The pulp of the prickly pear makes excellent jam, jellies and preserves. Throughout the years, The Cliffs Interpretation Centre has been producing Prickly Pear jam to increase the public appreciation of this often neglected fruit.
The locally hand-picked and pickled capers – 11/06/2020
Capers have been used in cooking since at least 2000BC in Mesopotamia and they are mentioned as ingredients in the first cookery book, dating back to the 1st Century. They can be described as a typical Mediterranean staple, often gracing plates and menus.
Capers are actually the unripened flower bud of a perennial plant, indigenous to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia – the Spineless Caper (Capparis orientalis, Kappar). Around the Mediterranean, this plant is cultivated, but in the Maltese Islands, the wild plant is often seen in garrigue habitats, rock faces, along crevices within walls, fortifications, and even in disturbed areas. The plant can be identified by its thick, fleshy leaves which offer storage for water and the sweetly fragrant flowers produced in spring-summer with white-violet colours.
Once the caper buds are harvested by hand, they are left out to dry and then pickled in brine, vinegar, wine or salt. If eaten right off the bush, capers are extremely bitter. By brining capers, their tart flavour is drawn out, giving them their distinctive piquant salty-sour flavour to dressings, sauces, vegetables, salads and main dishes.
Upon brining the capers are left for a couple of months, after which they sink to the bottom indicating that they are ready to be eaten.
At The Cliffs, Capers are featured as accompaniments in several dishes, ranging from starters, refreshing platters and salads, and even in seasonal specialities. Local hand-picked capers brined in water and salt are also found available for sale at The Cliffs Interpretation Centre.
The oldest cultivated Mediterranean fruit species: Figs – 10/06/2020
The fig tree (Ficus carica, Tin), which originated in the Middle East and western Asia, has been sought out for its decorative nature and delicious fruit since antiquity. It is one of the oldest cultivated fruit species in the world, being cultivated for at least 11,000 years since the Neolithic period. The tree has adapted to the Mediterranean climate and thrives in the Maltese Islands.
One of the fascinating facts about figs is that they have no blossoms/flowers on their branches. The blossoms are actually found inside the fruit and are responsible for the unique crunchy texture when eating it. The fruit is egg/pear shaped and varies in colour from yellow-green to copper to purple, juicy and sweet when ripe. Whether eaten fresh or dried, figs are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and a good source of calcium and fibre.
As a gynodioecious plant species, the common fig can be of two different genders: Female trees that produce syconia with female flowers developing into edible seeded figs and Caprifig trees which produce syconia with male and female flowers.
The fig tree produces early plump, tender fruit, which mature around mid-June and are known as “Bajtar ta’ San Ġwann”. Late figs, locally called “Tin” are produced from the same tree but mature after six weeks when the tree stops producing early figs. This deciduous tree grows at a moderate rate into a multi-branched shrub or small tree. Leaves are large, alternate and fragrant with a rough upper surface and hairy underleaf.
In the Maltese Islands, about 32 fig varieties are found, ranging from the Caprifig (Dukkar), which produces inedible fruit but are important for the development of the pollinating wasp Blastophaga psenes to the Bourgeossotte (Parsott), Long violet fig (Farkizzan), Long Black Fig (Bżengul Iswed) and Round Violet Fig (Tin iswed), with varying tree sizes and fruit shapes.
The importance of the fig tree in biblical times is shown by the almost 60 references to the fig in the bible, often to symbolise good life and prosperity. Many also believe that it was figs, not apples the fruit in the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve consumed.
Recorded for the first time in Malta in the 1990s, a type of pest, called the Bark beetle (Hypocryphalus scabricollis) can be detrimental to the tree, attacking from mid-trunk, and even resulting in tree death. Unfortunately, it is estimated that more than half of Malta’s fig trees have already been destroyed. Preventing infestation in a timely manner is usually the most effective method hence certain practices such as thinning stands of susceptible trees, proper irrigation, pruning and plant protection could act as a prevention. Certain national measures, such as having an inventory of all varieties could even help in obtaining information about the spread of the insect.
The Wild Leek in the Maltese Islands – 09/06/2020
The first expression of agriculture in prehistory dates back to the Neolithic Revolution, to between 10,000BC and 2000BC when wild plants started being domesticated from their crop wild relatives, through seed collection, planting and cultivation. Till today, Wild relatives of crop plants provide a very important resource to maintain agricultural production and improve agro-ecosystems. An example of springtime crop wild relative relate to the Allium or garlic genus.
Whilst the garlic is one of the cultivated Allium species in local agriculture, there are about 18 different species found in the wild in the Maltese Islands. Amongst the most common is the Hairy Garlic (Tewm Muswaf, Allium subhirsutum), a wild derivative of the cultivated garlic (Tewm, Allium sativum), whilst the Maltese Dwarf Garlic (Tewm Irqiq ta’ Malta, Allium lojaconoi) is a scarce endemic plant.
All Leeks are now recognised as cultivars of their crop wild relative – the Broadleaf Wild Leek (Tewm Selvaġġ, Allium ampeloprasum). Whilst it has not yet been established whether this plant is native or introduced in the Maltese Islands, it can be encountered as a casual in the wild or a field escapee. This species can grow up to 1.8m tall, bearing an umbel with as many as 500 pink and violet flowers in June. In the Islands, the preferred variety for cultivation of leek is the Allium ampeloprasum var. kurrat, which can withstand adverse drought, wind and disease.
In the Maltese island, the most common wild leek species are the Many-flowered Garlic (Kurrat Selvaġġ, Allium polyanthum), an indigenous species which can be seen in steppe or degraded garrigue habitats, often in May.
Two other very rare species, which can occur in open maritime habitats such as rocky coasts are the Maritime Wild Leek (Kurrat tax-Xatt, Allium commutatum), which flowers from June to July and the Hybrid Sea Leek (Kurrat tax-Xatt bagħal, Allium commutatum x polyanthum), which blooms in June.
Encountering Malta’s national plant at Dingli Cliffs – 05/06/2020
Since 1971, the Maltese Rock-Centaury (Cheirolophus crassifolius, Widnet il-Baħar) has been recognised as Malta’s national plant. This species is scarce but widespread in certain areas, in fact one of the best and perhaps only places to encounter such plant in the wild is along the western coastal cliffs of Malta, such as those of Dingli Cliffs.
The Rock centaury is actually endemic to the Maltese Islands with related species being encountered elsewhere around the Mediterranean region. This species represents one of the few isolated relict species of the Maltese Islands, probably originating during the Tertiary period (66-1.6million years ago) and surviving only on the Maltese Islands during Halocene glacial events, over 12000 years ago. The Rock Centaury was first recorded in the early 19th Centaury, and given the local name Widnet il-Baħar, locally coming from the word widna because of the elongated spatula-shaped leaves similar to another common fodder plant of the same name, and baħar, since the plant grows near the sea.
The herbaceous evergreen perennial is actually part of the Daisy family of plants, with the Rock centaury being a plant with stems up to 50cm high. Its violet coloured flowers appear from May to July, peaking in early June as singular thistle-like flowerheads from the erect stalk. The spatula-shaped leaves are fleshy, smooth and semi-succulent. Whilst it prefers the upper parts and edges of cliffs, it can also be sometimes found in coastal valleys or on cliff plateaux up to 50m inland.
Considered to be a critically endangered plant, the natural habitat preferences of the Rock Centaury are threatened by the introduction on alien plants, cliff collapse and even human interference. In fact, the wild population of this species is fragmented and restricted to a 25km stretch of limestone coastal cliffs and several valleys. One reasonable estimate as to the individual numbers of this plant is that of 20,000 individuals. Today, certain species areas of conservation as part of the Natura 2000 network have been designated to conserve this species. Another method to conserve the Rock Centaury has been the propagation of the plant by cuttings and cultivation in parks, roundabouts and central-strips.
The prolific prickly pear blooms – 04/06/2020
Like all cacti, the Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, Bajtar tax-Xewk) are native to the Americas, most probably having been originated in Mexico, where it has been cultivated since prehistoric times for over 8000 years. The Aztecs believed the plant to be sacred with symbolic values, and during their times, the plant was already being cultivated and sold.
The Prickly Pear was brought to into Europe from Central America in the 16th century. Throughout the Mediterranean region, in Sicily, Sardinia and Malta, this tree is now naturalised and has become part of the traditional landscape. The prickly pear also spread to the regions in the Red Sea, southern Africa and in Australia, facilitated by the carrying of stem segments on long-distance sea voyages to prevent scurvy.
The tree thrives in the warm Mediterranean climate of the Maltese Islands, and today, it often symbolises the typical rural landscape of cacti flowing over rubble walls. It often acts as windbreak, a good boundary between fields, and an effective deterrent against intruders or wandering livestock. In the Maltese Islands, it is nowadays considered as an invasive species which escaped from cultivated land, colonised maquis communities and is even invading cliff communities.
This species grows in semi-arid environments, with numerous adaptations to survive the dry conditions mainly related to succulence and reduction of transpiration. It reaches 1.5-3m high, developing an evergreen sturdy trunk with flat oval-shaped stems resembling the functions of leaves but called cladodes. It is a succulent plant, covered with prickles that break of easily with a water-repellent and sun-reflecting thick waxy outer layer. The root system is able to spread horizontally.
The tree flowers between May to July in conspicuous colours, often bright yellow, orange or red. The flowers first appear in early May through the early summer in Malta, and ripen as fruit from August through September. During blooming, the tree is visited by many insect species to feed on the pollen of the flowers, mainly bees, wasps, flies and ants.
Both fruit and cladodes may be eaten. Cladodes have been used in Mexican cooking for hundreds of years, and when young can be cooked as vegetable. Mature cladodes can also be used for forage. Locally in the Maltese Islands, in the past, a poultice used to be made from the cladode or flower of the prickly pear to provide relief from stomach ache, joint pain, insect stings and even burnt skin.
Interestingly, a species of scale insect thrives on the prickly pear. This insect produces a type of acid which produces a red dye for food colouring and cosmetics. The dye was used by the Aztec and Mayans in Oaxaca, Mexico, and exported to Europe, today it is still used as a colouring agent.
The Wild Artichoke Blooms – 03/06/2020
The surrounding garrigue’s spring greenery has given way to grasses and dry patches of plants. Yet, the purple blooms of the Wild Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus, Qaqoċċ tax-Xewk) still add some colour to the landscape.
The Wild Artichoke, is a thistle-like plant, part of the sunflower family of plants, found naturally in the Mediterranean region. The plant is actually the wild variant of the edible Globe Artichoke (Cynara scolymus, Qaqoċċ). The wild plant is easily identifiable from the cultivated globe artichoke because the former has a spiny appearance and the flower buds of the wild plant are smaller in size.
The Wild Artichoke is actually adapted to our hot, dry summers, in fact it is native from Morocco and Portugal in the east, Libya in the South, Greece in the West and south France and Croatia in the north. It is a herbaceous perennial with rigid spiny leaves to deter herbivorous animals. Growing up to 1m in height, the violet-purple flower heads appear solitary or on branched stems. The flowers attract a large number of pollinating insects, ranging from wasps, bees, beetles and more.
This plant, with edible flowering buds and stalks, was already used in cooking in the 4th century BC by the Ancient Greeks. It was a popular ingredient in Greek, Roman and Persian cuisine. It is also said that traditionally in Malta, the wild artichoke leaves were used for medicinal purposes as a tonic against fever. The wild artichoke is also used a digestive or in liquors.
At The Cliffs, the cultivated globe artichoke features in one of the refreshing starter dishes, alongside typical local Maltese produce – sundried tomatoes, capers and olives.
The Largest Snake in the Maltese Islands – 02/06/2020
The Western Whip Snake (Coluber viridiflavus carbonarius, Serp Iswed) is the most common snake of four species in the Maltese Islands, also found throughout other areas in Europe, especially Mediterranean countries. Being the largest snake, it can grow up to 1.5-2m, often seen in dry places along valley sides, maquis, open rocky ground, agricultural fields and also rubble walls. Like other reptiles, snakes often prefer the warmer seasons and can be encountered whilst basking in the sun. During the winter, snakes become almost inactive and hide in crevices.
Having a typically black appearance, with a light grey/yellowish underside, this snake has rounded stout and large eyes with a round pupil. Contrastingly, the young snakes have an olive-green head and light ash colour which darkens for four year until they reach sexual maturity and become all black in colour. With an agile and slender body, this diurnal snake moves fast and is greatly adaptable.
The diet usually consists of lizards (and their eggs),mice, frogs, young birds, large insects and other reptiles, including smaller snakes. This snake is not poisonous and kills its prey by constriction – It coils around the prey resulting in suffocation, after which the snake slowly swallows the prey whole.
Mating season starts in May, with males fighting violently. During copulation, both snakes roll and twist themselves around each other, holding their heads upright in a spectacular dance. In fact, usually males are bigger than the females, with a more voluminous head for holding them firmly during mating. The female lays between 5-15 eggs in June or July, in small crevices reached by the sun’s rays, which hatch after about 2 months.
When approached, it moves swiftly away but if it is caught or cornered, the Western Whip Snake defends itself by becoming aggressive – striking and biting furiously. Despite being common, the species is at times persecuted, and suffers from habitat loss, with related Maltese legislation to protect the species since 1992 and even European regulations.
The Mediterranean Thyme’s Purple Blooms – 01/06/2020
The change in the colour of the garrigue landscape from the springtime vibrant green to increasing brown parched patches around Dingli Cliffs is indicating the approaching summer with several of the spring flowering-plants drying up and preparing to spend summer as bulbs under the soil or seeds. However, one cannot miss one of the highlights of Malta’s indigenous flora in its bloom – the Mediterranean Wild Thyme (Sagħtar, Thymbra capitata).
Most probably the aromatic fragrance exclusive to the Wild Thyme, which fills the air, would precede spotting the actual plant, whilst walking within rocky garrigue areas. The leaves, which grow in clusters, are dotted with glands that produce fragrant essential oils with the aim to protect the plant from dehydration, predation and infection. The pink/lilac small flowers, just 1cm long, start appearing in May and the plant is in full bloom during the month of June, when little else is in flower.
In folk medicine, all plants that have a strong smell were used, in fact, locally the Wild thyme was used to soothe sore throat, treat bad breath, and even as a remedy for skin conditions of bacterial/ fungal origin such as boils or ringworm. The same medicinal properties linked to the antiseptic, expectorant, antispasmodic and anthelminthic substances found in the essential oil may be found in the cultivated Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), also a common kitchen herb typical of Mediterranean flavour.
Because of the shapes of its woody stems, in the past the wild thyme was heavily exploited to decorate Maltese Christmas cribs. In certain Maltese regions, the thyme was even collected for use as firewood. These practices were so widespread, that a law was enacted in 1932 to protect the plant. As a result, the species has managed to recuperate, and it is now commonly found in the Maltese Islands.
The thyme is valuable for bees and other insects, providing them with a vital source for collecting nectar during the hot summer months from June to mid-July, when the Wild thyme becomes is the only bee-important plant species in bloom. Wild thyme honey, which has been famous in Malta since classical times, is collected after the thyme flowers dry-up. Traditionally, thyme honey used to be collected on 26th July, on the feast of St. Ann.
Down Dingli Cliffs: A Historical Aspect – 19/05/2020
The origin of agricultural practices in Malta could be as old as the presence of man. Neolithic people were committed to agricultural life, and this is also evidenced by agricultural tools. Further on, during Arab rule, agriculture was the principal economic activity. In Malta, the practice of terracing possesses a long history, dating back to the Arabs, most probably owing their existence to the limited availability of land and the scarcity of natural resources on the islands.
Terracing is suitable for cultivation of Mediterranean slopes. A buttress of dry stone walls supports and stabilises the steepened slope at the terrace face to slow down or block soil erosion. Since the walls contain no binding mortar, rain water is able to flow and drain freely through the gaps between the stones. This means that terracing and rubble wall construction have allowed the extension of cultivation up slopes that would have been considered marginal.
Today, the main attraction of the Dingli Cliffs are the breath-taking cliffs themselves, but below the first tier of cliff, one may see stretches of countryside with a terraced sloping ground and partly under cultivation, evidenced by the occasional fields.
Photographic evidence of Dingli Cliffs from the 1920s, taken from aerial photos are a clear indication that farmers used to work the land to the lowest slope possible, with the landscape being altered into stepped terraces for agriculture. Rubble walls, indicating the size of the fields, were well maintained in the past, when the main activity in the Dingli village was subsisrtence agriculture . The motto of the village, Non Segnis Quies Ruris (Il-kwiet tar-raba’ mhux għażżien), translated to Rural quietness is not laziness, refers to the fact that farmers used to be silently but actively working their fields. Animals were kept in caves and farms to aid in the daily farming practices, and vegetables and fruits were the main crops.
Due to the limited access to reach down the cliffs, major land abandonment occurred in the 1960s. Today, upon looking down the cliffs, one may see many long abandoned terraced fields, interspersed with patches of natural garrigue and maquis vegetational communitites indicating ecological succession.
Till today, the major constraints confronted by the agricultural sector include lack of sufficient water, the structure of land ownership and land fragmentation. On marginal terraced slopes, with poor soils, difficult access and small field sizes, land abandonment is common. The steepest terraced slopes need a lot of maintenance to achieve slope and soil stability. Unfortunately, with field abandonment, retaining rubble walls collapse resulting in land degradation and eventually soil erosion.
The flowering caper bushes – 18/05/2020
Capers feature prominently in Mediterranean food, and these versatile ingredients which add a distinctive sour/salty flavour, are actually flower buds of the Caper bush. Whilst the plant is cultivated in Italy, Morocco, Spain, in parts of Asia and Australia, in the Maltese Islands, the wild plant can be commonly found on garrigue habitats, rock faces, along crevices within walls, fortifications, and even in disturbed areas.
The Spiny Caper (Capparis spinosa, Kappar tax-Xewk) and Spineless Caper (Capparis orientalis, Kappar) are indigenous, present on the Maltese Islands before the arrival of man. These plants are closely related to the mustard/cabbage family, having a multi-branched shrub and shiny alternate leaves. The sweetly fragrant whitish flowers are produced in spring-summer, with long violet-coloured stamens, and a single stigma usually rising well above the stamens. It is quite fast-growing, reaching 1m in height and 2m in spread. While the Spineless caper is commonly found in the wild, the Spiny caper is rare in the Maltese Islands, and can identified by spines at the base of each leaf stalk.
This plant is well-adapted to thriving in the Mediterranean climate. The root system is extensive with the ability to extract waters and minerals from soils. The thick, fleshy leaves offer good storage for water, and less water is lost by transpiration.
If eaten right off the bush, capers are extremely bitter. Hence, traditionally caper hand-picking involved collecting the flower bud before it opens, then pickling and using in the culinary recipes. upon pickling in vinegar and/or salt, the intense flavour is developed since mustard oil is released from each bud. Its use in cooking dates back to 2000BC, where it is mentioned as a food in Ancient Mesapotamia stone tablets. In the first cookery book, dating back to the 1st Century, the capers are mentioned as ingredients.
It is also thought that capers have medicinal properties, with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and astringent properties. The flowering of the caper bush is also ideal for pollination, since during this time, few are the flowers which are in bloom. The plant uses insects to pollinate it and birds to help spread its seeds.
At The Cliffs, Capers are featured as accompaniments in several dishes, ranging from starters, refreshing platters and salads, and even in seasonal specialities.
Marine Pollution, Plastic waste and the impacts of health concerns – 17/05/2020
We have read reports all around the world of an environmental silver lining brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic – smog giving way to blue skies, a drop in air pollution levels, wildlife moving about on their own accord and an increase in marine life. Whilst nature seems to be rebounding in the short-term, there has been a rapid surge in the use of gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment, which if not disposed of properly will result in negative consequences for wildlife and the fight against plastic waste, especially marine pollution.
This is particularly worrying when realising that 80% of global marine litter is land-based, and annually between 4.6-12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste finds its way into the world’s oceans. Marine plastic pollution harms marine life through ingestion and entanglement, violates ecosystem health, inhibits marine plant growth, and transports pathogens that may cause diseases to marine animals and plants. Marine litter can also enter the human food chain, when microplastics are ingested by fish which are later eaten by people. Economic losses associated with marine plastic include reduced fishery yields, damage to shipping infrastructure and declining tourism amenities. Combining marine plastic trash with chemical/nutrient pollution of marine environments provides a more comprehensive picture of marine pollution, and the extent of challenges associated with an increased concentration of chemicals in the oceans.
The pandemic has resulted in more room for animals to thrive even amidst the margins of urbanised existence. Water in the Venice canals have temporarily cleared due to a reduction in boat traffic which stirs up sediment in the water. Increased reports of bottlenose dolphin sightings in Maltese ports could even be related to the decline in maritime traffic to slow down the virus’ spread.
Whilst it is too early to assess the impact of the pandemic on the amount of plastic packaging waste which is being generated in 2020, the pandemic is prioritising hygiene and human health. Plastics have a crucial role to play in the pandemic by protecting frontliners from catching the virus and to limit its spread. However, plastic industry members are taking advantage of the uncertainty and are working to reinstate the widespread use of plastics, e.g. repeals of single-use plastic laws in the US, resulting in a higher demand for bottled water, PPE, single-use plastic bags and packaging. Even some supermarkets in the US, are refusing reusable bags and are handling single-use plastic bags instead!
The pandemic has created the requirement to choose between protecting public health and protecting the environment, one choice being at the expense of the other. We should remember that ocean/sea health is intimately related to our health, and not just of those who live near the coast. Marine biodiversity is very rich and provides useful resources for humans, e.g. certain bacteria found in deep oceans are being used to carry out rapid testing of the Covid-19 virus.
There are numerous environmental solutions to the challenges that threaten human kind. Now, more than ever, humankind needs to strive to protect the ocean rather than fill it with waste and plastic. Hopefully, this pandemic signals out a larger truth – how much waste we produce and how it is being managed!
The Spiky Hedgehog – 16/05/2020
The Algerian/Vagrant Hedgehog (Qanfud, Atelerix algirus) is a mammal species recorded in parts of North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia), Malta and Spain. It is thought that the Phoenicians may have introduced the Algerian Hedgehog in Spain and possibly the Maltese Islands at around 1000BC as a means of pest control. Whilst the Maltese word Qanfud comes from Arabic, it was only in the late 1960s that its identity as the Algerian Hedgehog was established.
Measuring between 20-25cm and weighing up to 650g, two distinct types are found in the Maltese Islands, the light-coloured variety with whitish spines and the dark-coloured variety with alternating light and dark bands on the spine. The spines do not grow far down the forehead. In other countries, it hibernates throughout the winter, but in Malta, it remains dormant on very cold days and is inactive in temperatures of below 20°C. During this time, the body temperature falls and the heartbeat is also reduced. Its preferred habitats are stretches of land with low-shrubs and vegetation, valleys and even agricultural areas.
Being mainly nocturnal insectivores, hedgehogs have a very good sense of smell and hearing which compensate their poor eyesight. They feed on a variety of invertebrates such as insects, earthworms, snails and slugs, and molluscs and also small vertebrates such as lizards.
Nests are constructed using dry leaves and may be found under thick vegetation or in rubble walls. The gestation period takes about 18 weeks, and the young hoglets are born from May to October, with each litter containing between 4 and 5 young. Within 36 hours after birth, the spines begin covering their body.
In past Maltese folklore, one proverb says “Il-Qanfud, qanfud ieħor missieru”, which is translated to “the hedgehog is the son of another hedgehog”, similar to the English proverb, “Like father, like son”.
When faced with danger, it rolls up into a ball, causing the spines to protrude. Whilst the spikes may be effective in deterring predators for example stray cats, unfortunately their defensive mechanism does not help to deflect cars, which are the hedgehog’s worst enemy in Malta. When confronted by the bright light of vehicles at night whilst foraging on insects, hedgehogs rolls up into a ball. Unfortunately, many hedgehogs are run over by cars in rural roads. The increase in feral cats also seems to have a negative effect on the hedgehog’s population. National legislation dating back from the 1993 together with European legislation, give strict protection to the Algerian hedgehog making it illegal to keep them as pets or handling them without permit.
The Tar-Smelling Pitch Trefoil -15/05/2020
Mediterranean climate ecosystems are rich in legumes, with the Pea (Leguminosae or Fabaceae) family identified as a major component of the vast majority of habitats and sub-regions in the Mediterranean. About 91 plant genera and comprising around 1956 species and 495 sub-species are found in the Mediterranean. In the Maltese Islands, of over 112 plant species in the Pea family, a common leguminous plant is the Pitch Clover (Bituminaria bituminosa, Silla tal-Mogħoż), found in most habitat-types even around road-sides.
This herbaceous plant with grows to about 30cm high with a flowerhead at the end of the highly branched wiry stem. The surface of the stem and leaves is covered by soft short hair. The leaves are trifoliate, consisting of three, similar, lance-shaped leaflets and if crushed or stepped-over, they emit a smell resembling asphalt (bitumen) or pitch – hence the name Pitch Trefoil. The semi-spherical flower head often consists of a cluster of 16-24 pale purple flowers, the lower of which are the first to bloom from February to June.
This plant can be used as a nitrogen-fixing perennial legume and a forage plant, used for feeding goats.
Studies show that this plant has an important constituent called Psoralen which is of a certain medicinal importance, making the skin more sensitive to light, and hence if combined with Ultraviolet light therapy can be used to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis and vitiligo.
The Yellow-Wagtail and its Striking Plumage – 14/05/2020
Photo courtesy of Kevin Francica
Wagtails are a type of passerine birds, notable for their continuous tail pumping behaviour, which have given them their name. Wagtails are slender ground-feeding which breed in Africa, Europe and Asia, some of which are fully or partially migratory. Whilst their tail wagging behaviour is still poorly understood, it is though that its purpose could be to flush up prey or as a signal of vigilance that can help them deter potential predators.
Three species of wagtail visit the Maltese Islands, the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba, Zakak Abjad), Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava, Isfar) and the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea, Zakak tad-Dell). Whilst the White Wagtail is a common winter visitor, the other two species are often migrating whilst visiting the Maltese Islands in Spring and Autumn.
The Yellow Wagtail is a slender 15–16 cm long bird, with the characteristic long, constantly wagging tail. It is very noisy, with a high pitched call, spending much time walking on the ground and feeding on insects. It prefers open country near water sources, and can be noticed by its vibrant yellow underside. During migration, the bird is very social, often feeding and roosting in large numbers.
Between 13 and 17 distinct subspecies breed in a wide range over Eurasia and North Africa. In fact, the heads of breeding males have a variety of colours and patterns depending on the subspecies – at least five which visit the Maltese Islands.
The two Gladiolus Flower Species – 13/05/2020
Often considered as an ornamental plant, the Gladiolus produces elegant long flower spikes appearing in a wide array of vibrant colours. The genus Gladiolus contains about 300 species, 250 of which are native to sub-Saharan Africa and only about 10 species are native to Eurasia. There are over 10,000 named cultivars, most of which derived from 7 species native to South Africa and brought to European gardens in the late 17th century. The sword-shaped long flat leaves with a pointed tip have given its name – Gladiolus in Latin means “little sword”.
Two species may be found in the Maltese Islands, the Eastern Gladiolus (Gladiolus communis, Ħabb il-Qamħ tal-Blat) and the Field Gladiolus (Gladiolus italicus, Ħabb il-Qamħ tar-raba’), both thought to be native to the Mediterranean region.
As its name implies, the Field Gladiolus or Cornfield gladiolus occurs in fields among growing crops, and is frequently encountered in wheat crops throughout the Mediterranean. Most probably, it was introduced from Sicily, with the introduction of agriculture in Malta. This perennial flower grows an erect stem, almost 1m high, with about 15 magenta-coloured flowers at the top section. Whilst throughout the Maltese Islands, the plant can be described as rare, it is quite commonly encountered in certain sites, such as fields at Dingli. In the past, shepherds used to feed goats with the leaves of the Field gladiolus since it was thought that the plant increases milk production. In the traditional medicinal practices of Iran, a decoction from the bulb and the flowers of the Field Gladiolus were used to treat heart and lung infections.
Common throughout the Maltese Islands, the Eastern Gladiolus prefers abandoned clayey fields. Having a similar flowering period to that of the Field Gladiolus, the Eastern Gladiolus blooms between March to May. It grows up to 80cm long and up to 20 pink, red or purplish-red flowers appear.
The Quarries at Clapham Junction – 12/05/2020
The large open area at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir, which contains the largest intensity of cart ruts in the Maltese Islands is also well-known by the nickname of Clapham Junction. Of note is that the large open area of about 8 hectares is surrounded by ancient regular quarries. However, most probably quarrying in the area was undertaken at two separate periods, the oldest from 700/500 BC extending into Roman times, and the more recent could be dating back to the end of Late Middle Ages to Early Modern age.
A clearing of vegetation and soil used to be made in marked areas, followed by the actual quarrying. This would involve cutting of channels with a pickaxe (fiesa tal-ponta) to mark the slabs’ dimensions. A horizontal slit at base would be reinforced by wooden wedges, resulting in the breaking away of the rock from the bedrock.
To the north, east and west of Clapham Junction site, the ancient quarries were filled over with soil and reutilised as agricultural fields. In those parts of the quarries that were not reclaimed as fields, the quarries are quite shallow, about 60cm deep, clearly identifying the grooves of the removed ashlar blocks. The size of extracted ashlar blocks was equivalent to the standard dimension of building typical during the Phoenician-Punic and Roman periods.
Since certain cart ruts run straight into two particular quarries, there is an indication that there was a close association between the quarries and the cart-ruts. Two particular pairs of cart ruts from the main route change direction and branch towards the northwest direction leading straight into the centre of an exposed quarry about 90cm deep, having rectangular cuts showing the locations from where the large blocks were extracted. The deteriorated rock surface made up of pointed spurs of rock running in straight lines, and the quasi -rectangular pans in the limestone surface show indications of extensive quarrying.
Two other small quarries having rectangular cuts are situated close to the northeast of the site. Since these two quarries show the least signs of erosion, it is thought that they could date back to the times of the Knights of St. John.
Bright Crimson Sulla Fields – 11/05/2020
Forage can be described as plant material that is eaten by grazing livestock. Amongst the herbaceous legumes which are used for forage in the Mediterranean basin is the Sulla (Hedysarum coronarium, Silla). It is a highly palatable, nutritious and productive forage for ruminant production. Sulla originated in the western Mediterranean region and North Africa and was domesticated only recently, in the 18th century in southern Italy and Sicily. Having a high drought tolerance, it has been used for forage in semi-arid and arid regions. It is regarded as a pioneer species in poor, compact and degraded soils and, as an N-fixing legume, improve soil fertility for the following crop.
In the mid-19th century, the Sulla was abundantly produced in the Maltese Islands during the rainy season. Whilst fodder plants such as legumes and cereal are agriculturally cultivated as fodder plants, the Sulla is one of the species which can also be found in the wild, considered as introduced in the Islands and spread on its own. Two varieties may be found, one drought-resistant with tall-stems is found in isolated areas and another more common on clay slopes in the north and north west of Malta, being ideal for grazing by sheep and goats.
The plant is quite upright, with thick, succulent stems that become slightly woody after flowering. The flower heads are racemes of 10-35 florets, light pink to bright red and crimson, each 3-6 mm long.
Nectar collected from the Sulla is important for the production of two types of honey in the Maltese Islands, the spring blossom honey (yellowish with viscous consistency) and the multiflora honey (dark amber to dark brown with liquid consistency) harvested from May to August.
The Corn Bunting and its nesting habits – 10/05/2020
Photo courtesy of Kevin Francica
Amongst 20 bird species are recorded to have bred in the Maltese Islands throughout the years. The regular breeding species include the Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea, Ċiefa), Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti, Bagħal ta’ l-Għollieq), and the Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala, Bufula sewda). Amongst the birds which occasionally breeds in the Maltese Islands is the Corn Bunting (Emebriza calandra, Durrajsa), a resident and partial migrant.
Corn buntings, often frequent exposed open ground, and are rather featureless birds, pale brown in colour with darker streaks in the underparts. The bill is particularly thick to be able to break seeds. Both males and females are about 17.5cm and look very similar in appearance. The males’ song is a unique repetitive jangling sound, similar to jangling keys.
Nest building is started off as early as February, made from roots and dry grasses, quite large in size and neatly built on the ground or in plants such as that of the Branched Asphodel. The inside of the nest is usually lined with softer material such as fine grass. The female lays 4-6 days between March and May, incubating them for 12 days and the young are able to leave the nest after 10 days – before they can even fly. The female can lay eggs twice in one breeding season. Nest construction, incubation and feeding chicks is the female’s job, and the male’ role in parental care is minimal, males only feed the chicks when they are over half grown. When feeding the young, the corn bunting feeds on insects such as butterflies, crickets and spiders, but it also prefers feeding on seeds of wild plants.
In the past, the Corn Bunting was a very common breeder in Malta, especially in agricultural fields with sulla or corn, but it has declined throughout the years, and is nowadays restricted to undisturbed garrigue and steppe habitats. A combination of human disturbance and urbanisation can be factors as to why this species is declining, not just in the Maltese Islands, but throughout Europe since the 1970s. In the UK alone, numbers fell by 86% from 1967 to 2008. Since the nest is located on the ground and the Corn bunting is a bird of open country, intensive agriculture, decline in cereal cultivation, hedgerow removal and pesticide use in Europe are depriving it of its food supply.
The benefits of enjoying nature through walks and wellbeing – 09/05/2020
In our hectic world, walking is often regarded as a means to an end – a planned leisure activity, or a means of doing physical exercise. However walking without purpose or purposelessness walking has much more value. It becomes a way to clear one’s head, allow inspiration, take in the scenery and even notice other people.
Whilst moving more slowly, wandering with the feet through walking helps to free the mind. Walking can become a sensory experience, not only enjoying the countryside views, but even hearing the sounds of nature, enjoying the smell of wild plants and more. The social lifestyle of meeting people in a relaxed atmosphere whilst enjoying a walk can also result in a positive boost in mood.
Although Malta is amongst the most densely populated countries in the world, still, there are areas which remain undeveloped and pristine. Some Maltese villages are surrounded by open areas, whether agricultural fields or just ample space for walking. The Maltese countryside has much to offer, whether through the natural landscape of azure waters, towering cliffs, karstic plateaux, beaches, or the agricultural scenery of winding country pathways lined with rubble walls, old rural structures, maybe encountering farmers tilling the land, and more.
Up till the mid-1800s, the only means of transport in the rural Maltese Islands were the horse, cart or the simplest mode of commuting, walking. This is a far cry from today’s car dependence trends, when people are not inclined for active mobility options but use their private car as the default mode of transport, even for short journeys. Statistics show that currently, there are almost 400,000 vehicles in Malta, three-quarters of which are passenger cars. Apart from the health concerns related to lack of exercise, the total car dependency brings about several social challenges. Random encounters with strangers or acquaintances are eliminated with the use of the car and the interactions between people are reduced to co-workers and family.
Even children are becoming used to be driven around and have become strongly dependent on the car. The increases in car ownership and the hectic lifestyles of modern life have brought about a shortage of time, with an associated increase in the use of the private car. Considering that children are the transport users of the future, an over-reliance on the car during childhood, can result in car dependence during adulthood. Social issues even arise due to car dependency by children. Today, our children have less sense of belonging to their home town than their parents or previous generations, they do not know the people in the village and their nicknames, they have lost the traditional village dialect, etc.
Having an easy access to the countryside can prove beneficial in enjoying nature whilst increasing the amount of physical activity. In these unprecedented times, when people are told to stay indoors and avoid unnecessary travel, there is a possibility that even to buy essential services from the village, people may start opting again to go on foot rather than use the private car for short-distance travel. Taking a short walk alone helps to reduce stress and anxiety whilst being able to connect with nature and the surroundings. Since parents are spending more time with their children, one may encounter an increase in families enjoying a walk in countryside areas.
If this is the case, the question remains whether the practice of enjoying walks will be a short-term one until the health crisis is over or whether it may be able to get engrained into normal lifestyle practice in the long-term. For sure, walking have many benefits, not just a way to enjoy the surrounding environment but a means to help people socialise with each other!
The well-known Wall Rue for Traditional Folk Medicine – 08/05/2020
The rue or citrus family of flowering plants include numerous species, perhaps the most familiar being the Citrus, including orange, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine and lime. Another notable species, well-known in the past due to its medicinal uses is the Wall/Fringed Rue (Ruta chalepensis, Fejġel).
The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean region but is today distributed worldwide. It is even cultivated in the tropics as a herb or medicinal plant! Growing up to 80cm tall, the Wall Rue is a strong-smelling plant with silvery-green leaves. The flower inflorescence consists of a cluster of flowers, each bright yellow petals with rolled and fringed edges.
The medicinal and culinary properties of this plant are attributed to the presence of essential oils in all parts of the plant. Even the strong deterrent odour of the plant comes from the oil glands in the leaves.
It was used extensively in the Middle Eastern cuisine in the old times and even in ancient Roman times as a herb. However, due to its bitter taste, it is no longer used in culinary dishes. In parts of Greece, Italy and Croatia, rue is still used as a traditional flavouring for liquors.
The caterpillar of the largest butterfly in the Maltese Islands, the endemic Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio machaon melitensis ) can sometimes be encountered feeding on the leaves of the Wall rue. In fact, one of the several Maltese names for this butterfly is Farfett tal-Fejġel. Female butterflies lay eggs on rue or fennel plants, and when the caterpillar hatches, it feeds on the leaves of the same plant until it pupates.
In the historical folk medicine of the Maltese Islands, the Wall Rue was commonly used to treat skin disorders, minor wounds, ophthalmic disorders, ear infections, pain and inflammation caused by rheumatic pain and arthritis. Rue leaves were mixed with warm cooking oil and applied over ailments. Even in modern scientific medicine, leaves and young stems have been reported to contain alkaloids,amongst which is rutin with powerful antioxidant properties.
Flight of the Raptors – Honey Buzzards visiting the Maltese Islands – 07/05/2020
Bird migration is one of the wonders of the natural world, undertaken by approximately one out of every five bird species. Migration is an extraordinary feet of endurance and stamina, whereby birds move from areas of decreasing resources to areas of increasing resources, mainly related to food and nesting locations. When travelling between their breeding and wintering grounds, certain flyways are opted because they offer suitable habitat for rest and refuelling. The Mediterranean/Black Sea Flyway is one of the three Palearctic-African routes connecting Europe with Africa.
Certain geographical barriers, including seas and mountain ranges act as obstacles for land-birds, especially raptors. Raptors or birds of prey, have evolved to optimise soaring-gliding flight, by using ascending air currents formed over land to soar and gain altitude. At sea, such thermals are absent, meaning that rather than flying over large bodies of water, they need to make use of land bridges to shorten the distance they fly over the sea. In the Mediterranean, the main flyways are over the Straits of Gibraltar and the Straits of Bosphorus. Smaller numbers cross from Tunisia to Europe via the central Mediterranean, crossing over Sicily. Since the Maltese Islands, are situated well east of the direct spring route from Cap Bon in Tunisia to the Strait of Messina, fewer birds opt for flying over Malta during spring. More raptors are recorded in the Maltese Islands in Autumn, since birds fly over the eastern side of Sicily, which is closer to the Maltese Islands.
Raptors are carnivorous birds with strong bills, large talons and broad wings with exceptional flight competences. The Honey Buzzard (Kuċċarda, Pernis apivoris) is one type of raptor, which feeds mostly on insects, but also small mammals and small birds. As an adaptation to its diet of honeycombs and wasp larvae, the honey buzzard has stiffened scale-like feathers around the eyes and forehead as a protection against bee and wasp stings.
It is a summer resident in Europe, wintering in west-central Equatorial Africa. As a long distance migrant, the Honey Buzzard uses magnetic orientation and visual memory of landscapes to navigate. It also prefers to soar on thermals, rising air over land, hence avoiding large expanses of water surfaces. In the Mediterranean, honey buzzards crossover the narrowest stretches of sea, or the so-called “land bridges”. In fact, the Honey Buzzard is one of the most commonly sighted birds of prey in the Maltese Islands – It is a common autumn migrant and occurs in smaller numbers in spring, mostly from late April and May. Buskett is an important roosting site for migrating birds, especially raptors. Observations of the Honey Buzzard migrating over Malta have shown that this bird crosses the Mediterranean Sea during weak lateral winds but not with following wind.
Soars on flat wings, the Honey Buzzard sexes are quite easily identified by the colour of their plumage. The plumage of the Honey Buzzard is variable, but it is always dark brownish on its back and upper wings.
The Historical Importance of the Dingli Radar – one of the landmarks of Dingli Cliffs – 06/05/2020
Eighty-one years ago, on 27th March of 1939, the first radar system in Malta was installed at Dingli Cliffs by the British. Today, the Dingli Radar characterises one of the major landmarks of Dingli Cliffs.
The first radar was called the Air Ministry Experiment Station (AMES) No.241 and in June 1940, it was joined by AMES No. 242 adjacent to each other. By mid July-1941 three other radars were installed around the Maltese Islands, one of which No. 504 AMES was also installed at Dingli Cliffs. This system was part of a triangulation arrangement, connecting Dingli Cliffs to Fort Tas-Silġ (Marsaxlokk) and Fort Madliena (Swieqi). Obtained information by the stations was passed to the filter room at Lascaris War Room in Valletta, then forwarded to plotters who placed counters on a map. RAF fighters would then have been able to intercept enemy formations.
Whilst the radars can usually plot medium-to-low flying aircraft, the first radar’s purpose was to plot high flying aircraft in the vicinity of Dingli Cliffs. When the Siege of Malta, the fight for control of Malta as a strategically important island of the British crown, commenced on 11th June 1940, the first 10 Italian aircrafts were seen approaching Malta on the Radar scan at Dingli.
An underground complex was excavated in the 1941 to house the equipment of the radar, which was used by the British in the Second World War. It consisted of the Transmitter Room with landline disc-cases to communicate with the War Rooms, the Operations Control Room where received information from the Radar Receiver was plotted onto a table map and the Generator Room. A small Wireless Telegraphy Cabin was even designed to be used in case a break down in the landlines developed. As the war progresses, this was used to communicate with the airborne Wireless operators.
The Maltese took charge of the Air Traffic Systems from the British RAF in 1979, when the last British forces left Malta. The construction of today’s radar, or as is mostly known by locals “golf ball” dates back to the 1980s. Nowadays, the Technical Station of Malta Air Traffic Services Ltd. caters for all the technical needs of the Radar. It handles all air traffic passing through Malta’s Flight Information Region, ranging from Tunisia to Crete.
The Rich ecological diversity of the Karstic Plateaux of Dingli Cliffs – 05/05/2020
Whilst enjoying the outdoors environment of the Maltese Islands, walkers can encounter numerous landscapes which have been moulded through the effects of geology and time, along with tectonic forces. Dingli Cliffs are undoubtedly renowned for their spectacular plunging sea cliffs, showcasing the rock layer sequence of the Maltese Islands, shaped by the different resistances of the rock layers. Walking along “Panoramic Road” along Dingli Cliffs, one may appreciate the plateau on which we stand, also exhibiting the highest elevation of the Maltese Islands.
Of the five layer rock sequence of the Maltese Islands which can be identified at Dingli Cliffs, the topmost Upper Coralline Limestone forms the upper plateau bounded by sheer vertical cliffs up to 40m high. Beneath the seaward side of the plateau are the Blue Clay slopes. The Upper Coralline Limestone is the youngest rock formation characterised by hard pale-grey limestone. It is made up of marine sediments that used to live in shallow seas, and thus the fossil remains are similar to those of the Lower Coralline Limestone.
The plateau surface consists of karstic limestone, indicating that the landscape was largely shaped by the dissolution of rainwater in the carbonate bedrock limestone. Typical features include potholes and limestone pavement morphology, characterised by irregular narrow grooves present in the rock surface.
Amongst outcrops of bare rocks, garrigue vegetation communities may be found. The garrigue vegetation community is the most characteristic of the Maltese natural communities found in such rocky ground. It is dominated by low aromatic small-leaved shrubs and plants which are adapted to survive the summer drought, especially geophytes and therophytes and a rich diversity of herbaceous plants. Plant species need to be adapted to surviving in areas affected by strong winds, sea spray, animal grazing, trampling and burning during the hot summer months. Plant species which are found in the karstic plateaux include the Wild Thyme (Thymbra capitata), Sea Squill (Uriginea pancration), Mediterranean Heather (Erica multiflora)and Spurge species (Euphorbia spp.). Each garrigue is independent, unique and characterised by different specific dominant species.
Unfortunately, the garrigue is often underestimated, often seen as a waste of space filled with weeds amongst rocky surface. Even the Maltese word for garrigue, xagħri, is derived from the Arabic word sahra for the desert, implying that the garrigue is our desert. Despite this, the garrigues are home to about 500 species of flowering plants, over half the total number of indigenous species in Malta!!
The most common Mediterranean Thistle and the steppe vegetation – 04/05/2020
The major communities which characterise the terrestrial vegetation assemblages of the Maltese Islands are part of the successional sequence leading to the climax assemblage i.e. from steppe, garrigue, maquis and climaxing at the woodland. Whilst garrigue is the most dominant vegetation type, steppes are also widespread and they result from degradation of the maquis and garrigue.
One particular plant which thrives in the steppe habitat is the Mediterranean/Boar Thistle (Galactites tomentosa, Xewk Abjad) , the most common of over 29 thistle species in the Maltese Islands. Being distributed in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean thistle bears hairy, silver-green foliage with a white vein-pattern on the leaves. The flower heads, which appear from March to June are quite large, about 3cm diameter with colours varying from white to pinkish.
Even during Ancient Roman times, the edibility of this plant was recognised with Dioscorides (40-90AD) describing it as an edible thistle eaten young and cooked in oil with salt. In the Dardanelles region (Eastern Mediterranean), in fact, the young flowering stems are eaten as a herb or vegetables cooked with other vegetables.
Other plants which are typically found in degraded steppes include Common Awn Grass (Stipa capensis, Nixxief ta’ l-isteppa), Goat Grass (Aegilops geniculate, Brimba), Branched Asphodel (Aesphodelus aestivus, Berwieq), Seaside Squill (Uriginea pancration, Basal ta’ l-Għansar) and numerous thistles such as the Clustered Carline thistle(Carlina involucrate, Sajtun).
Whilst plants such as the Mediterranean thistle are often considered as weeds, they provide an important source of food for honey bees and other wild pollinators. As regards bees, the multiflora spring honey depends heavily on the nectar collected from the Red Clover/Sulla (Hedysarum coronaroum, Silla), Citrus species (Citrus spp), Borage (Borago officinalis, Fidloqqom) and the Mediterranean Thistle.
Can we apply the lessons of early response to the health crisis to the global biodiversity crisis and the decline in pollinators? – 03/05/2020
Covid-19 has shown us how we need to learn to adapt to a ‘new’ normal at a very fast rate. This need to adapt for the virus can also be replicated for the global crisis of biodiversity loss. Looking at the global system, one of the weakest links is the threat of biodiversity loss caused by the decline in the world’s pollinators. Any loss of biodiversity is a matter of public concern, but losses of pollinating insects could be quite troubling because of the potential negative effects on plant reproduction. The whole world needs to prioritise on the important role of pollinators, especially when considering that the global food system directly links nature with the economy, agriculture and even nutrition.
Pollination is an ecological service, essential to human life. As pollinators visit flowers to drink nectar and feed on pollen, they transfer pollen to and fro different flowers, helping both wild and cultivated plants to reproduce. Pollination is critical in agricultural systems with more than 75% of the world’s cultivated crops requiring insect pollinators in a third of all farmland. One out of every three bites of food is provided by pollinators. Translated into currency, between €200-530 billion of agricultural production is reliant upon pollination. Whilst our dependence on pollinators is growing, there has been a generic decline of pollinator species at the global scale.
Managed and feral honey bees (Naħla ta’ l-Għasel, Apis mellifera) are experiencing population declines due to various factors, including introduced parasitic mites, pesticide misuse, bad weather, threats from other species or sudden colony death caused by the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Even in the Maltese Islands, the lack of winter rains causes stress on the bees, with resultant poor harvests for spring and summer honey.
Although the role of honey bees is important for pollination, they share the task with other insects such as wild bees, butterflies, moths, bee flies, flower beetles and more. Hence, even non-Apis bees and other invertebrate pollinators are declining and their loss may be even more alarming to crop yield costs than the loss of honeybees. Even some vertebrate pollinator species, like birds and bats are threatened with extinction.
With regards to wild pollinators, man-made disturbances to habitats are creating severe challenges, including significant biodiversity loss. Habitat deterioration caused by land use changes, pollution, pesticides, pathogens, competing invasive species and climate change could all provide reasons as to why the wild pollinators are declining. Indirect drivers relate to human population growth, global economic activity, science and technology.
The loss of pollinators could result in negative implications for farming, since many crops, including fruits, vegetables, seeds and herbs are directly dependent on insect pollinators. In Malta, 15% of the total crop economic value of agricultural production of fruits and vegetables depend on pollination services. Furthermore, pollinating insects are not just responsible for pollinating crops – 90% of global wild flowering plant species depend on the transfer of pollen. Changes in wild plant populations caused by declining pollinators could impact animal communities, including birds, mammals and insects which are dependent on such plants.
Whilst the world is experiencing the postponement of many activities, it is clear that we need to apply the hard lessons from the coronavirus outbreak and apply them to the biodiversity loss crisis. As with Covid-19, taking proactive steps to protect biodiversity and pollinators is a matter of timing. The role of education in raising awareness about the need to protect biodiversity is clear. Even minor positive gestures, such as planting more native flowering plants and herbs in the balcony or in pots at home and limiting pesticide use could make a positive difference. Even choosing local Maltese honey can help to support the honey bees and the local beekeepers!
The Snakes in Malta – did you know that one species is venomous?? – 02/05/2020
When thinking about snakes in Malta, we often remember the story of how upon arriving on Malta, St. Paul was bitten by a snake and threw it in the fire. This episode is the first record of snakes on the Maltese Islands, and it even led to several legends, one of which is that St. Paul banished all poisonous snake species or made them harmless. Despite this, contrary to popular belief, one type of venomous snake does occur in Malta!!
Four species of snakes, from the same Colubridae family are found in Malta, namely the Western Whip Snake, Algerian Whip Snake, Leopard Snake and the Cat Snake. The largest and most common is the Western Whip Snake (Coluber viridiflaviorus, Serp Iswed) which can grow up to 1.5m long. The Leopard Snake, a brightly coloured species with various colour patterns (Elaphe situla, Lifgħa) is also common throughout the Maltese Islands. Solely found on the main island of Malta and quite uncommon, are the Algerian Whip Snake (Coluber algirus, Serp Aħdar) and the Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax, Teleskopu), both thought to have been brought over to Malta from North Africa along with timber consignments during the First World War.
All four snakes prefer sunny habitats with rocks to hide under, with typical habitats ranging from rubble walls, stone heaps, field edges or old buildings. The animal prey they feed upon is similar, such as smaller reptiles (lizards), and young rats, mice, frogs, etc…
The only species which is venomous is the Cat Snake, with poison fangs located at the back of the upper jaw. Upon catching its prey and weakening it by coiling itself around it, the cat snake bites the prey and waits for the venom to start working. Since the venom is weak (just strong enough to kill its prey, often small rats, mice or lizards) and because the fangs are located at the back of its mouth, this snake is not dangerous!
The cat snake is greyish in colour with a dark dorsal design similar to a zigzag pattern. Being the smallest snake in the Maltese Islands, it reaches a length of 75cm, and sometimes grows up to 1m.
Furthermore, unlike the three other species which have round pupils, the Cat snake can be identified by its vertical pupils, with a slit in the centre, just like cat’s eyes!! The Cat snake is mainly active from dusk onwards and it hunts during the night, different than the other three species which are active during the day. In fact, the cat snake’s extended pupils are adapted for night vision.
Exotic Orchids – The Pyramidal Orchid Blooms – 01/05/2020
There’s more to the exotic orchids than meets the eye. Orchids are one of the world’s most adored and refined flowers, which have fascinated human kind throughout history. The real and imagined qualities of orchids are reflected in the folklore of many cultures. The ancient Greeks gave the orchid its name because of the shape of the twin bulbous roots, “orkhis” literally means “testicle”, so the flowers became to be associated with fertility and virility.
The Orchid family is large and diverse, making up the largest group of blooming flowers, with over 28,000 different species existing naturally. Orchids have evolved complex mechanisms to achieve cross-pollination, hence the chances of being pollinated are often scarce. Orchids may produce a strong scent, produce nectar, use visual pattern or mimic insects to attract pollinating insects.
Over 40 orchid species are known to occur in the Maltese Islands, and the latest to flower is the frequent and indigenous Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis, Orkida Piramidali/Ħajja u Mejta) which blooms from mid-April to June. As other orchids in Malta, it survives the summer in the form of bulbs and seeds.
The erect pyramidal shaped flower stalk of the Pyramidal Orchid grows directly from the underground rhizomes and bulbs. Numerous closely-packed purple flowers are produced, whereby the bottom flowers bloom first, forming a pyramidal flower head of blooms.This orchid is native to south-western Eurasia, with a habitat range from western Europe, to the Mediterranean and as far east as Iran. In the Levant, a type of flour, called salep is made from the tubers of the orchid, often consumed in beverages and dessert and as medicine.
Flowers are pollinated by butterflies and moths, such as the Cabbage white butterfly species. The flower has flaps to aid pollinating insects to find the aperture leading inwards and the pollen becomes attached to the proboscis, the elongated sucking mouthpart, of such insect pollinators. This plant’s scent varies throughout the day. When smelled in the morning, it has a sweet vanilla scent to attract pollinating butterflies, but in the evening, the smell turns to musky/goat-like to repel moths!
Another orchid species which similarly appears like the Pyramidal Orchid is the Anacaptis urvilleana, Maltese Pyramidal Orchid (Orkida Piramidali ta’ Malta), actually an endemic plant. The only differences are that the latter’s flowers are lighter pink coloured, it is scarcer and it flowers in late winter (end of February).
Living Inside Caves – The Għar il-Kbir cave complex close to Dingli Cliffs – 30/04/2020
Throughout history, human populations have adapted to their natural environment for human habitation. In fact, the excavation of subterranean areas as caves and grottos has been quite a common occurrence throughout human history and the Mediterranean region in particular. The porous limestone found in many parts of the Mediterranean region and the lack of wood encouraged the adaptation of troglodytic forms of life.
The era with the greatest spread of troglodyte settlements throughout the Mediterranean is the Middle Ages from 500-1500AD, with the recognition that caves offer natural climate control, ease of carving, close proximity to agricultural fields and safety from pirates, amongst other factors. In fact, historical and documentary evidence points out that cave dwelling in the Maltese Islands was also popular during medieval times.
Perhaps, the best-known site for troglodytic habitation is Għar il-Kbir, not just one cave, but a complex of eight caves in two levels. Misraħ Għar il-Kbir is very close to Dingli Cliffs, and commands impressive views over the majestic Verdala Palace surrounded by the semi-natural woodland of Buskett. As a typical example of a karst feature settlement in Upper Coralline Limestone, Għar il-Kbir formed by the dissolution of carbonate rock by rainwater which led to underwater drainage and the formation of the underground cave. Today, the cave looks like a crater-like depression in the ground, because the ceiling of the central cave collapsed.
It is still unknown when the first human settlement in the cave complex occurred, but most probably there is a long history. In the mid 16th century, troglodytes were established at Għar il-Kbir with over 117 people grouped in 27 families calling Għar il-Kbir their home. Evidence of cave dwelling abounds at Għar il-Kbir. Old rubble-walls are still present throughout the complex indicating their use to create distinct spaces as living quarters. Marks all over the walls, show that people used pickaxe tools to enlarge the cave. Other evidence of human habitation include rock-cut sleeping recesses, oven, loops (mrabat) along the walls and ceiling, shelves, and niches.
Anthanasius Kircher was a German scholar who visited the cave complex upon invitation by the Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John in 1637. He described the cave dwellers as vegetarians and devout Christians. There was division of labour, with men being farmers and shepherds and women preparing foodstuffs, e.g. baking and cheese making. Openings in the ceiling were man-made to let out smoke and allow ventilation, but their angulated position prevented the entry of rain and wind. The cave-complex even became a popular tourist attraction during this medieval time, with several scholars visiting the troglodytes and leaving written anecdotes of their visit.
By the early nineteenth century, the population continued decreasing, until the 1830s when the British government expelled the last cave dwellers and resettled them into the nearby villages, for sanitary or tax reasons. According to popular belief, the roof of the main cave was bombed twice to ensure that the site no longer remains available for dwelling.
Misraħ Għar il-Kbir features in the trail map devised by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, indicating that Dingli Cliffs and the surroundings offer a wealth of not solely nature and biodiversity, but even interesting historical remains!
The Nocturnal and Elusive European Nightjar – 29/04/2020
Photo courtesy of Kevin Francica
Nocturnal birds differ from diurnal ones, not just because the former is active at night in the hunting for prey, but there are even some physical differences between them. Bright colours are very difficult to see at night, so nocturnal birds frequently have a muted plumage with dark shades of brown, grey, black and white. Often, the plumage of nocturnal birds is blotchy with camouflage patterns so as to blend in the surroundings during the day, when the bird is roosting. Birds that are active at night have enhanced senses of vision, hearing and smell.
Usually, when we think of nocturnal animals, owls come to mind. Another type of nocturnal bird species which visits the Maltese Islands in spring and autumn is the European Nightjar (Buqrajq, Caprimulgus europeaus). Its streaked plumage is typical of nocturnal birds, providing good camouflage in the daytime, when the bird is roosting amongst leaves, branches, grass and stone. As to its feeding habits, the nightjar is insectivorous, with a wide mouth surrounded by bristles adapted for catching night-flying insects and moths. Large eyes with reflective layers help it hunt at night through night-vision.
In Europe, due to their elusive nocturnal habits, nightjars often feature in myths and legends. The Latin genus name Caprimulgus translates to ‘goatsucker’, from an ancient Greek myth where people used to believe that the nightjar suckled goats causing them to stop producing milk. Today, it is known that nightjars are attracted to places where there are livestock because of a higher concentration of insects to prey upon.
The preferred habitat for breeding of the European Nightjar is dry, open country with bushes, through quite an extensive breeding range in Europe and Asia north of 64°N latitude. Usually, males arrive first and prepare for courtship in a display flight. This species does not build a nest, but lays the eggs directly on the ground. Whilst the worldwide status of the European Nightjar is of Least Concern, there have been population declines in much of their range in north-western and northern Europe since the 1950s. In the UK, it is red-listed as a cause for concern, and in Ireland, it is close to extinction.
The main threats to the species at the European scale are habitat loss and disturbance through changes in forestry practices which have resulted in the decline of extensive heathlands suitable for nesting. Even intensive pesticide use plays a role in the reduction of the availability of insect prey. Furthermore, in Europe, this species has numerous predators, especially of eggs and chicks, including crows, magpies, jays, owls, hedgehogs and domestic dogs
Pungent Garlic Blooms in the Wild – 28/04/2020
One of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean cuisine is the garlic, its aroma and flavour complimenting all types of food dishes. It is not a surprise that the garlic has been part of the Mediterranean diet long before the great Greek and Roman civilisations. In fact, the garlic was known by ancient Egyptians, both in culinary and medicinal techniques.
Forming part of the Allium family, the garlic’s close relatives are the onions, shallots, leeks and chives. Allium comes from the Greek word “aleo”, meaning “to avoid” because of the pungent smell.
Although three Allium species are cultivated in local agriculture (onions, garlic, leeks), about 18 different species of Allium are found in the wild in the Maltese Islands, in areas where they became naturalised. Naturalisation is the process by which a non-native species spreads in the wild and continues to maintain its population by reproduction. One scarce Allium species is endemic to the Maltese Islands, namely the Maltese Dwarf Garlic (Allium lojaconoi, Tewm Irqiq ta’ Malta). Amongst the most common species, which is indigenous to the Maltese Islands is the Hairy Garlic (Allium subhirsutum, Tewm Muswaf Salvaġġ).
The Hairy Garlic is widespread around the entire Mediterranean Region. It is a perennial herb which grows up to 50cm, with long hairy leaves along the margins. This species with pure white star-shaped flowers, prefers moist rocky places within the garrigue habitat of small spiny aromatic shrubs. The wild garlic can be easily recognised by its pungent smell, typical of the garlic.
Both the flowers and the leaves are edible raw or cooked and have a mild garlic flavour. Sometimes when in season, the kitchen of The Cliffs uses wild garlic flowers as a garnish to food dish and to add a garlic punch to the taste!
Garlic itself has been traditionally used as a cure for various ailments. Raw garlic was eaten during World War II as a disinfectant and antiseptic.
The Succulent Stonecrop in Exposed Rocky areas – 27/04/2020
Native plants of the Mediterranean Islands have adapted to survive the long, hot dry summers and the short cool winters. Since conditions may be quite stressful, plants need to be hardy and drought resistant. One of the plant genus which thrives in challenging conditions of drought, thin soils and harsh environments, is the Stonecrop (Sedum).
Like all succulents, the stonecrop is able to store water in their foliage for use during times of drought. Another specialised strategy for dealing with hot dry climates is that they respire only at night to avoid loss of moisture during the day when it is much hotter.
There are about 53 Stonecrop species native to Europe, two-thirds of which are confined to Southern Europe and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Maltese Islands, about 6 species of Stonecrop are recorded. Amongst the most common species which catches attention because of its red carpet-like patches in exposed rocky areas, is the Azure Stonecrop (Beżżulet il-Baqra, Sedum caeruleum). The origin and habitat of this plant species extends from the Western Mediterranean region to North Africa. The leaves of this low-lying succulent plant are narrow, thick and oblong-shaped, usually tinted red according to the amount of sunlight reaching the plant and just 1cm long. Flowers are produced between March and April, pale-blue or whitish in colour. It often grows in small temporary depressions within rocky areas which fill with rainwater during the winter months.
As an annual therophyte, the Azure Stronecrop completes its life cycle in a short period when conditions are favourable. After setting fruits, it dries up and survives summer in seed form.
The Spread of the Deadly Tree disease and potential repercussions – 26/04/2020
On a global scale, one of the most dangerous plant bacterium is the Xylella fastidiosa, a plant pathogen which causes huge negative impacts not only on the environment but also the economic and social facets.
The bacterium inhabits plant xylem tissue and is spread by insects (cicadas, froghoppers and spittlebugs) feeding from the sap. The xylem is the tissue mechanism that allows the transport of water and nutrients from roots to stems. Once the xylem is compromised, the tree’s ability to move water and nutrients is limited. Disease symptoms include leaf scorching, foliage wilting, dwarfing and even plant death. Currently, there is no available method to cure a diseased plant in the field.
Although the bacterium has been detected on more than 300 plant species, not all of them are affected by Xylella fastidiosa. Amongst the identified host species which are affected are several trees of high economic value, including the olive, stone fruit, vine and citrus.
Xylella fastidiosa has become closely associated with the olives after a strain of the bacterium was first detected in olive trees in Puglia, Southern Italy in October 2013. The common froghopper/ meadow spittlebug (Pulċinell, Philaenus spumarius) has been identified as the vector of the Xylella in Italy, the agent which transmits the pathogen. The disease has also been recorded in Southern France, Spain and Portugal. The devastating consequences of the spread of the disease in Italy resulted in an estimated 60% decline in olive crop yield since 2013 and the death of over a million trees. In 2015 alone, the outbreak caused a 20% increase in olive oil prices. Apart from the economic losses, there are also potentially touristic and cultural losses.
Considering the climatic controls on species distribution, through computer simulations, it was found that the areas which are most at risk to certain subspecies of the Xylella fastidiosa are located in southern Europe.
EU financial support has become available to compensate owners for the value of their destroyed plants and to enact projects to restore olive oil production. The institutional delay in intervention against the Xylella fastidiosa in Italy, now exacerbated by the national effort to contain the spread of Covid-19 can potentially hinder the timing and efficiency of the response against the plant pathogen. Possibly, a secondary negative longer-term impact would be further spread of the bacteria. Although it is recognised that main EU funding is being diverted to tackle the immediate and necessary health threat caused by the coronavirus, adequate food supply and security through EU funding on agriculture are still important and needed.
Long-distance spread of the bacterium is caused by the movement of infected propagating material (e.g. budwood, rootstock seedlings and budded trees) through harbours and airports. Given that Malta is an island, and the fact that the infection spreads via the movement of infected propagating material, it is only human intervention which can either spread the disease through shipping or prevent it from arriving.
The highly adaptable Mediterranean chameleon – 25/04/2020
Amongst the fauna species which have become part of reptiles of Malta is the Mediterranean Chameleon (Kamalejonte, Chamaeleo chamaeleon) which is actually not a native species. It was introduced in the Maltese Islands in the middle of the 19th century when specimens were brought over from North Africa. After being released in a private garden in St. Julians, this species spread throughout almost all of the Maltese Islands, including Gozo and Comino.
Similar to other reptiles, the chameleon’s whole body is covered in scales. As arboreal species, usually, chameleons are generally found in shrubs or trees. It can also be encountered in garrigue habitats, such as those of Dingli Cliffs. Between April and November, the female climbs downs towards the base of the trunk, lays and buries between 12-22 eggs in a hole. The young hatch just in four to five months’ time. In Malta, the adult chameleon can grow up to 30cm in length, including its tail. When feeling threatened, it puffs up its body with air and opens its wide mouth, giving the appearance that it is larger in size. It feeds on numerous insects, including spiders, wasps, flies, moths and butterflies.
This species has numerous ways by which it adapts. It is laterally compressed to help it hide behind branches. The feet and tail have also adapted to living amongst trees – with two opposing groups of toes and a tail which coils around branches, greater grip to branches is ensured. It can view up to a 360° angle without even turning its head. Although the chameleon’s normal colour is greenish or brownish to blend into its habitat, it is able to change colour but not for camouflage. The colour change is a response of the chameleon to temperature, light, reproductive status and even to express its emotions and mood.
Prey are caught by shooting its extendable long sticky tongue (which is twice the size of its body length) towards its prey, all in less than 1/16th of a second, faster than the blink of an eye!!
The Common Bindweed Flowers -24/04/2020
The Convolvulus is a genus comprising over 200 flowering plant species of the Bindweed or Morning Glory family, mostly climbing or trailing vines or herbs. In the Maltese Islands, over 20 Bindweed species are recorded. All are quite easy to recognise since the flowers look like the horn of old gramophones or trumpet!
Two of the most common bindweeds in the Maltese Islands, which grow in steppes, garrigue and disturbed areas, are the Mallow Bindweed (Leblieba tax-Xagħri, Convolvulus althaeoides) and the Slender Bindweed (Leblieba tax-Xagħri Ċar, Convolvulus elegantissimus). With greyish leaves, the flowers bloom mid-April to June. Both species are very common with minor differences e.g. the flower centre of the Slender Bindweed is white, while that of the Mallow Bindweed are a darker shade of pink. The stem of the Slender Bindweed is thin, with arrow-head shaped leaves covered by fine, white hairs.
The genus name Convolvulus comes from the Latin or Italian word “convolvere”, meaning to entwine, a reference to the stem’s habit of twining around other plants. Roots are very deep and are extensive, and this plant is often regarded as a weed in agricultural fields.
The caterpillars of a particular type of migrating rare large moth, called Convolvulus/Bindweed Hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli, Baħrija tal-Leblieb), found throughout Europe and Africa, eat the leaves of the Bindweed. The caterpillar, which is dark in colour with whitish stripes, is hidden during the day and resumes feeding on the leaves at night.
Welcoming the first fruits of the season: Loquats – 23/04/2020
The Loquat is a species of flowering place in the Rosacea family, which includes peaches, apricots, cherry, prunes and more. The loquat (Naspli, Eriobotrya japonica), is also known by other names, such as Japanese plum, Japanese medlar, Maltes plum, etc and is actually indigenous to southeastern China, where related tree species can be found growing in the wild. It was introduced in Japan and has been cultivated there for over 1000 years.
Its presence in the Mediterranean region can be described as introduced, after which the plant became naturalised or cultivated for its edible fruit. The first European record of the Loquat dates back to the 16th century, when the fruit tree was described in a natural history book about China. In Malta, this tree species was probably introduced in the middle of the 19th century and it was first planted in Buskett. The loquat trees that are still found at Buskett Gardens, close to the walking trail formulated by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, are the direct descendants of the original trees.
The loquat seasonal cycle is different from other traditional fruit crops, since it blooms in autumn between October and December, develops fruits during the winter and ripens in early spring. In fact, whilst other trees are able to withstand drought during the growing summer season, the mechanism of the loquat is of “drought escaping” since it has a different phonological cycle.
This small evergreen tree, which often remains low, starts producing fruit after about 4 years. The tree thrives in deep well drained soils and can live up to 80 years. The loquat fruit is the first fruit of the season in the Maltese Islands, characterised by a thin yellow-orange rind enclosing a whitish pulp. The fruit can be between 3 and 5cm long and can be described as both sweet and slightly acidic.
Loquats may offer a variety of health benefits – they are high in nutrients, packed with plan compounds, have a high concentration of vitamins and antioxidants, and more.
The loquat was even used in traditional medicine with the leaves and fruit having astringent properties. The Cliffs Centre produces the authentic Loquat and Wild Fennel jam when the fruit is harvested in April.
The urban roosting preferences of the common winter visitor – the White Wagtail – 22/04/2020
Photo courtesy of Kevin Francica
A common winter visitor to the Maltese Islands is the White Wagtail (Zakak Abjad, Motacilla alba), which often arrives in October and stays until early spring before migrating north to breed in Northern Europe. This small wintering bird breeds throughout Eurasia and even in mountainous areas in North Africa, where it nests in crevices, along river banks, in stone walls and even buildings. Birds which breed in Northern Europe winter around the Mediterranean and tropical/subtropical Africa.
In the Maltese Islands, upon arriving in individual numbers or in flocks in Autumn, this slender bird can be seen in its winter black, white and grey plumage. The bird’s tail, black with contrasting white outer tail feathers, is quite distinctive. It is insectivorous; whose diet includes flies, mosquitoes, insects, small molluscs and seeds. For feeding, it prefers open ground, where it is able to see and pursue its prey, either walking or sometimes flying to catch flying insects.
In Italy, this bird is called ballerina bianca (white dancer) because it often seems to dance as it picks insects, its head jerking to every step of its walk and its tail wagging constantly. The Maltese name zakak is a reference to its call, quite a distinctive tseee-tsick sound!
During the day, they disperse to forage either as single individuals or in pairs, often around water sources in valleys and manure heaps at farms. This bird species is adaptable to urban areas and quite tolerant to human disturbance. For instance, it forages on paved areas such as car parks, village squares and schoolyards.
As the evening approaches, they gather in large flocks at particular roosting sites, often a sheltered cluster of trees. The primary site to see this bird in the Maltese Islands is in the centre of Valletta at the Great Siege Square, whose few large Ficus trees have been used as roosting sites for thousands of White Wagtails since at least the late 1960s. This site is even designated as a national Important Bird Area because of the White Wagtail roosts. Another two smaller roosts in Gozo are found at Lunzjata Valley and at it-Tokk, in Victoria.
They gather in such large numbers, most probably for warmth, to protect themselves against predators and to increase foraging efficiency. Like similar wintering species, this species is faithful to its wintering quarters, often returning to the same locality the following winter.
In 2010, the roost site was heavily pruned resulting in the removal of major parts of the trees’ canopy. This resulted in the displacement of birds, with birds that failed to find an alternative safer roost site dying of exposure during cold windy and rainy nights. Whilst pruning could have affected the number of White wagtails in the consecutive years, it seems that this species is on the rebound especially with careful pruning that has allowed the trees to mature and become denser, and hence hosting a larger number of birds. These past few years the number of recorded wagtails has kept on increasing in record numbers, of over 10,000 each year.
The Bronze Age Settlement of Wardija San Ġorġ – One of the the Earliest Defensive Wall Systems in Malta – 21/04/2020
The first defensive settlements in the Maltese Islands date back to the Bronze Age, between 2400BC and 800BC. After the collapse of the Temples culture, the Bronze Age was characterised by new settlers who imported bronze, an important commodity. The importance of possessing bronze could have possible led to friction with different races fighting each other. Upon settling in the Maltese Islands, specific areas with adequate defence were chosen as new settlements.
From a community which practised cremation burials such as that of Tarxien Cemetery, the second period of the Bronze Age is associated with small settlements on flat-topped hills, mainly characterised by a defence system of walls – a primitive version of fortifications.
One of these settlements is that of Wardija ta’ San Ġorġ, at the promontory of Ġebel Ċiantar, which offers one of the best viewpoints of Dingli Cliffs.
The geomorphology of the area has been crucial in its use as a settlement during the Bronze Age. The promontory of Ġebel Ċiantar formed as a result of the crossing of the Magħlaq Fault system with a northeast trending fault. Furthermore, the underlying fields were supplied with fresh water from the exposed perched water table at the intersection between the Upper Coralline Limestone plateau and the Blue Clay beneath it. The freshwater springs and defensible promontory were noted by people of the Bronze Age, who only needed to protect the landward side from potential enemy attacks. Of the cyclopean wall fortification, made of huge limestone boulders roughly fitted together, only a few stones survive to this day.
The defended area is quite small, indicating that villagers used to live in the nearby fields outside of the wall, but when there was any sign of attack they would find refuge in the fortified area, which would have acted as a citadel / fortress.
Behind the wall, one can also note 15 Rock-cut silo pits (10 of which are excavated) and hut formations. The rock-pits are typical of the Borġ in-Nadur phase, most probably used as water or grain stores. Small channels cut across the exposed rock face could have been used to transfer water in to the pits.
Other similar Bronze Age fortified settlements in the Maltese Islands are that of Borġ in-Nadur (Birżebbuġa), il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija (Baħrija) and at In-Nuffara (Gozo).
The Vibrant Barbary Nut Iris – 20/04/2020
The Barbary Nut Iris (Fjurduliż Salvaġġ, Moraea sisyrinchium) is an indigenous flower which can be frequently encountered in the coralline plateaux of Dingli Cliffs and the surrounding garrigue countryside between April and May. It can also be found throughout the Mediterranean and Southern Europe.
The plant is actually a miniature, whose pretty purplish/blue flowers with whitish and yellowish centres are quite-short lived. In fact, flowers open in the afternoon and close at sunset and by the next morning, they already become withered. The 2cm flowers don’t open unless the day is warm.
The Barbary Nut Iris forms part of the Iris family, which contains over 2000 flower species distributed throughout the world, amongst which are irises, freesias and crocuses. The word Iris actually refers to the Greek word for rainbow, named as such most probably because the irises have a wide variety of flower colours. All Irises are perennial plant, which grow from bulbs, underground storage organs for storing energy or water and to survive adverse weather conditions.
Putting Local Agriculture at the forefront in the time of the Coronavirus – 19/04/2020
There are growing concerns across Europe that this unprecedented health crisis can potentially create pressures on food producers and cause a devastating impact on the agricultural sector. Countries are making their utmost to ensure that their local supply of fruit and vegetables does not fall short, especially when considering that food imports from foreign sources have slowed down.
Farmers throughout Europe, including Italy, Germany, UK and France, are facing a shortage of workers because they depend on seasonal migrants to work the fields during harvest time. The travel restrictions imposed due to the pandemic have cut this seasonal migration, with potential damaging result of lost crops and hence a shortage in supplies. In Germany, an attempt to provide for a domestic food supply resulted in the lifting of a ban on seasonal Eastern European farm workers to allow over 80,000 workers to work the fields during April and May. France is leading the way into putting French farming interests first. An estimated 200,000 people will be needed to mitigate the absence of foreign workers, giving rise to measures that encourage the French unemployed to earn extra income from farming whilst still receiving unemployment benefits.
In Italy, more than 25% of food production relies on over 370,000 foreign seasonal workers. Strawberries, asparagus, cauliflowers and zucchini will be reaching harvest time soon. There is a major threat that the entire food supply may come at a standstill with not enough workers.
The Maltese Islands are dependent on Italy for about a fifth of the general food imports. Italy is a major producer of vegetables, fruits, wine and permanent crops, and the usual share of non-regular employed farm labour in Italy averages 18%. A shortage of labour in Italy could have resultant negative effects all over Europe.
The coronavirus epidemic is now more than even highlighting the importance of having short production chains, being self-sufficient, enhancing food security and protecting our agricultural sector. Supporting local Maltese farmers will sure help the local farming community, and we need to ensure our best to buy local where possible. Whilst notifying the fact that Malta is not self-sufficient when comparing the agriculture produce to the number of residents, a boost in the local farming industry will help.
The tiny Willow Warbler – Epic endurance in long-distance migrating journeys and nesting sites – 18/04/2020
During spring-time, the birds which visit the Maltese Islands are migrating from Sub-Saharan Africa towards their breeding sites in northern Europe. Amongst the migrating birds is the Willow Warbler (Vjolin Safrani/Vjolin Pastard, Phylloscopus trochilus), a long-distance, night-migrating small passerine, just about 12cm long and an average weight of 11g.
Despite the minuscule size, this species is strongly migratory since almost all of its population winters in tropical Africa. In the Maltese Islands, this bird migrates north in March and April, especially in areas with tree cover such as valleys and woodland. It is greenish-brown and yellowish in colour, with greenish-brown wings. The Willow warbler’s appearance is similar to that of the Chiffchaff (Vjolin tax-Xitwa, Phylloscopus collybita), but the former has paler legs, a more striking face pattern and a darker eye stripe. It is insectivorous, picking insects from vegetation and even catching them whilst in flight. Being very active, it is often seen flicking its wings whilst in the search for insects.
Its breeding territory is vast, covering northern and temperate Europe and the Palearctic, from Ireland in the west to Siberia in the East. Three subspecies with plumage variations are recognised, one breeding in Europe and wintering in west Africa, one breeding in Scandinavia and wintering in central Africa, and one breeding in eastern Siberia and wintering in eastern/southern Africa. Open area within woodland, woodland edges and areas with low vegetation and adequate ground cover for nesting close to the ground are often the preferred habitats.
In England alone, between 1970 and 2007, there was a 58% decline in the Willow warbler population with a high regional variation, suggesting a potential habitat-driven cause due to a reduction in its preferred habitat. Two factors can possibly be responsible – increased deer grazing pressures and woodland maturation caused by termination of active woodland management.
Other factors which may play a role in the decline of the Willow warbler relate to disturbance, competition and climatic factors. This species is sensitive to disturbance and previous studies in Europe have shown that it avoids habitat near roads. Moreover, this bird also suffers high nest predation rates through competition from more dominant species. It could be that increasing Chiffchaff populations could be having a negative impact on the Willow warbler, because the latter is less adaptable to different habitats. Impacts of environmental change could also be crucial, in fact climate modelling is indicating a northern shift and reduction of the willow warbler’s population.
This decline in the recorded sightings of the Willow warbler in the breeding/nesting habitat can also provide an indication as to why there has been a general decline in sightings in the Maltese Islands throughout the years.Factors such as indirect human intervention and climate change cause concern as to presence and abundance of woodland bird population species in the near future.
The Dodder…one of Malta’s parasitic plants – 17/04/2020
Parasitic plants need a host plant to provide them with the necessary water and nutrients for survival.
The frequently encountered Dodder (Pittma, Cuscuta epithmum) is a parasitic plant which is found almost throughout Europe. The dense mass of long, thin, red stems with no leaves atop another host plant make it easily identifiable in the garrigue landscape. The plant doesn’t have roots of its own, so it penetrates the stems of a host plant by entwining around it to steal its water and nutrients. The red colour of the dodder’s stem is an indication that it has little to no chlorophyll with which to produce its own nutrients. In the Maltese Islands, the preferred host plants of the Dodder include the Mediterranean thyme, spurge, asphodel and sea squill.
The flowers are very small, about 5mm in diameter. After being dropped to the ground, the seeds can remain dormant for up to ten years before they find a host plant and are able to germinate. Even the seeds are very small, but they produced in large quantities so their chances of germination are enhanced. Two other rare species of the Dodder in Malta are the Field dodder (Cuscuta campestris) and the One-seeded dodder (Cuscuta monogyna).
Apart from the dodder, another common parasitic plant that can be found in the Maltese Islands is the Broomrape (Budebbus, Orobache spp.), with more than 12 different sub-species, all which parasitise the root of their host plant, often agricultural crops in cultivated fields such as legumes and carrots.
Among the thousands of parasitic plants that found in the world, few hold historical and scientific interest. In the Maltese Islands, the Malta Fungus (Għerq Sinjur, Cynomorium coccineum) is parasitic on several succulent shrubs which grow in saline coastal areas. Although it is very rare in the Maltese Islands, it grows in other Mediterranean areas. In the past, its presence was limited to Fungus Rock in Gozo, causing much interest by the Knights of St. John, who valued it for its medicinal powers. They introduced the plant to the European medical practices of the time and even traded the plant powder for the cure of various ailments. Today, although still rare, colonies of this parasitic plant were found present in a couple of colonies at Dingli Cliffs, below clay slopes in certain sections.
Larva of the Maltese Glowworm – 16/04/2020
The firefly family of insects are well-known for their use of bio-luminescence during twilight, between dawn and dusk, to attract mates or prey. They are able to chemically produce green light from their lower abdomen with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. Moonlight affects the ability to view glow-worms in exposed areas, in fact on full moon nights, only the brightest glowworms in exposed colonies can be seen.
In the Maltese Islands, we have our own endemic type of firefly, called the Maltese Glow-worm (Lampyris pallida, Musbieħ il-Lejl). It has been recognised as endemic since the late 1980s. The glow-worm is the larve of a type of beetle, often found in shady sheltered places, such as under rocks in garrigue habitats. Just two weeks after eggs are laid in a damp place, the tiny larvae, black with bright red spots all over the 12 segments, hatch. Sometimes, the larvae emit a weak light. Their preferred diet consists of snails and slugs. They inject a toxic digestive fluid in the snail to paralyse it whilst still alive, and the poison turns parts of the snail into a brown broth that the larva can feed upon.
The morphological difference between the adult sexes is large – the female remains larviform but the males have the shape of a typical flying beetle. Most often in early summer, whilst standing at a prominent position such as rubble walls or roadsides, the females emit a glow, which can be seen by males up to 45m away. The brightness of the glow is used by males to indicate female fecundity – the males are more likely to fly to a brighter female, meaning it is larger and hence has more eggs.
Around the world, fireflies depend on their own light to reproduce, and so they are very sensitive to light pollution.
The Bear’s Breeches Plant and specialised bees for pollination – 15/04/2020
In areas which provide shade and dampness such as areas behind walls or along valleys, one may currently encounter the common Bear’s Breeches plant (Ħannewija, Acanthus mollis).
This plant which often grows in groups, has an upright stem which rises upwards up to 1m. The large soft-textured dark green shiny leaves,which grow up to 1m in length, are often retained all year round. Each flower head can produce up to 120 whitish to pinkish hooded flowers, which appear between April to June.
It can only be pollinated by bees which are large enough to force their way to get inside the flower and reach the nectar at the bottom.
This plant forms the inspiration for one of the three main columns in classical Ancient Greek and Roman architecture dating back to about 500BC. From the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian column types, the latter is the most decorative and based on the leaf-motif of the Bear’s Breeches plant. Similar plant motifs even feature in Medieval and Renaissance sculpture and woodwork.
The presence of this plant in the Mediterranean is natural. In fact, certain Maltese traditional folk medicine resorted to the use of the Bear’s breeches to soothe burns.
Stepping back in time…The enigmatic Cart ruts of Clapham Junction – 14/04/2020
The densest intensity of cart ruts in the Maltese Islands is located at Clapham Junction, locally known as Misraħ Għar Il-Kbir and located very close to Dingli Cliffs.
There are over 200 sites in the Maltese Islands where the cart-ruts appear, especially on exposed coralline limestone terrain with a rugged karstic morphology – but the largest concentration of more than 40 ruts is found at Clapham Junction. The English name “Clapham Junction” is a reference to the busy railway station in London named Clapham Junction. After all, in certain sections of the site, the cart ruts converge into each other like railway lines outside a busy station.
Cart-ruts are pairs of parallel rock-cut channels, sometimes occurring in single pairs but often found in clusters, with a constant gauge of 1.4m. They vary in depth between 10-60cm.
The age and purpose of the cart ruts is still a mystery. It is often presumed that the Clapham Junction site developed in 2000BC after new settlers came from Sicily to start the Bronze Age in The Maltese Islands. Three shaft-and-chamber Punic tombs are found in the area, one of which is found above a pair of cart-ruts, suggesting that the cart-ruts were present much before the construction of the tomb.
It has generally been accepted that cart-ruts were man-made. The most plausible theory about the purpose of the cart ruts is the transport of material on sledges with tracks gauged into the rocks. Another possibility is that they were used as irrigation channels. However, by far the most fantastic idea about the cart-ruts is that they served as launching runways for alien spacecrafts!!
Sweet Alyssum flower blooms all year round – 13/04/2020
The Sweet Alyssum, often referred to as the Sweet Alison (Buttuniera, Lobularia maritima) is a low-growing flowering plant, from the mustard family (Brassicaeae) of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.. It is native to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands and the Azores.
The species name ‘maritima’ refers to the plant’s preferred habitat – the coastal one, however it is also found on cultivated fields, disturbed areas, rubble walls and fortifications. The plant consists of several secondary branches along the stem, the latter rising upwards. In the Maltese Islands, the flowers are produced all-year round. Each flower, just 5mm in diameter, has four circular white petals along each stalked flower clusters. Similar to the species’ English name, the flowers have a sweet-smelling aroma similar to that of honey. The sweet smell of the Sweet Alyssum attracts bees, flower flies, wasps and butterflies in their search for nectar.
Considering that this plant has high drought and heat resistance, it can live all year round in the Maltese Island. It is often found cultivated in gardens as a bedding plant, with many horticultural cultivars with various colours and also it even self-sows if found in a good position.
This plant is even edible, and the young leaves, stems and flowers can be eaten to add a pungent flavour.
Could recently changing feeding behaviours of the local Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis) be indicative of environmental changes? – 12/04/2020
The local Spanish Sparrow . Photo courtesy of Kevin Francica
Information on food habits of particular species is fundamental for the understanding of its ecology, particularly in species with an impact by human activities. Diet affects a variety of biological, physiological and behavioural characteristics, and is in turn indicative of any biodiversity and environmental changes.
Birds are recognised as excellent indicators of the state of the environment. They are often selected as bio-indicators because they are found in many habitats, are sensitive to habitat change, and they even consume a variety of food. Birds also provide numerous ecosystem services, such as pollination, seed dispersal, they act as agents of biological control and more. They can indicate deteriorating habitat quality, environmental pollution, invasive species impacts and changing climatic conditions.
The Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis, Għasfur tal-Bejt) is perhaps the most familiar type of bird in the Maltese Islands, often found nesting in inhabited areas – ventilation holes, drain pipes, window sills and electricity poles. This bird lives in close association with man, often even depending on man for its food.
It is a norm that sparrows eat fruit, especially during the summer months, however recently, unripe loquat fruits (Eriobotrya japonica, Naspli) were found damaged by Spanish sparrows at Dingli Cliffs. Such occurrence is not normal, and may be indicative of a secondary impact caused by a changing diet of this bird species.
Human activity also has a role to play in determining changes in feeding behaviour. Studies have recorded that shortage of food can cause birds to change their feeding habits. It is well-known that food scraps leftover by us is one of the main constituents of the diet of the Spanish Sparrow.
Time will tell if the recent restrictions imposed to safeguard people’s health from COVID-19 infection, may have an indirect secondary impact on the availability of food for such type of birds, considering that less people are spending time outdoors. If this is the case, farmers can face an additional challenge this summer.
The Gourd Ladybird and the Squirting Cucumber Plant – 11/04/2020
The Squirting cucumber (Faqqus il-Ħmir, Ecballium elaterium) is a very common perennial plant which is common everywhere in the Maltese Islands, especially disturbed ground. This plant actually pertains to the same family as that of the melons, marrows, pumpkins, etc.. The stems of this plant can grow over 80cm but instead of rising up, they spread outwards and remain low. This plan species is actually indigenous to southern Europe and the Mediterranean.
Both the English and Maltese name refers to the brilliant way in which the seeds are dispersed. An increase in liquid pressure inside the mature yellowish-green fruit pods results in the shooting out of the seeds up to a distance of 1 metre from the main plant. Whilst the plant is today considered highly toxic and lethal in large doses, it has been used for traditional medicine for over 2000 years as a purgative. Even in the Maltese Islands,, an extract from this plant was used as a laxative and even for jaundice.
Almost all throughout the year, a close inspection of this plant renders a view of the entire life-cycle of a type of beetle, the Gourd Ladybird (Henosipalachna elaterii). This orange-brownish hairy ladybird differs from the typical seven-spot ladybird – in fact, it has 12 spots. This insect rests, feeds and mates and hatches the eggs on the same Squirting cucumber plant. The larvae even feed on the green leaves with an average of 3-4 annual generations per year.
It is still not sure whether the insect is a pest on such plant, or whether there is positive symbiosis between the two species. The latter thought could be related to the possibility that the plant provides food for the insect, whilst the ladybirds aids in pollination by collecting pollen on their winds.
Rubble walls and our rural heritage – 10/04/2020
Dotting the typical Maltese rural landscape is the Rubble wall (Ħajt tas-sejjieħ). This wall been featuring in the Maltese Islands since the time of the Arabs (870-1127 AD), who established several new agricultural practices, irrigation methods and even crops.
Patience and craftsmanship are two components required for the construction of these works of art. Even the use of tools is minimal – just a small axe (imterqa), spade and a string (lenza) to mark the limits of the wall. Stones of irregularly shaped sizes are placed one by one next to each other and layered, without the use of mud or concrete or any form of mortar. The structure is based on double external walls, filled with rubble (mazkan) in the middle.
Rubble walls serve many intrinsic purposes. They have been used as borders dividing fields for generations, but the most important roles of these walls are ultimately environmental-related. In fact, these walls serve to filter and stop the soil from run-off and erosion. Cracks and crevices within the wall allow water to pass through, thereby preventing waterlogging. The soil is trapped and is prevented from being carried away from the field. Retaining rubble walls are often considered as a major local method to control soil erosion. Rubble walls also act as a refuge for different fauna species, e.g. lizards, gheckos, butterfies and even host many different flora species, including the snapdragon, wild caper, spiny asparagus and the Sweet alyssum.
The conservation and maintenance of all rubble walls and rural structures has been required by law through a legal notice since 1997 because of their historical and environmental importance.
Borage – the pretty plant with multiple uses – 09/04/2020
The Maltese Islands are home to over 1100 recorded plant species, some of which have particular value for gastronomy and medicine. One such wild plant is the Borage (Fidloqqom, Borago officinalis), also known as starflower, an annual plant with pretty blue star-shaped flowers.
This abundant plant, which grows to a height of between 60-100cm, is found naturalised not only in the Mediterranean, but also the Middle East, Northern Europe and North Africa. The flowers are most-often blue, but sometimes, pink flowers are observed.
The fresh flavour of the borage flower is subtle cucumber-like. Both flowers and leaves are edible, and a good source of vitamins, zinc, magnesium and potassium. At The Cliffs Interpretation Centre various dishes are prepared according to the season ranging from soup to ravioli to using the flowers as edible decorations. Check this link for more recipes by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre featuring the borage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qy4X_VAAl9c
Medicinally, the plant was used over two thousand years ago – a brew from the borage was given to gladiators in Ancient Greece and crusaders before battles and long journeys. Traditionally associated with good well-being, Maltese traditions of the borage include decoction for soothing coughs, as a tonic and anti-inflammatory.
The picturesque chapel at the edge of Dingli Cliffs – 08/04/2020
The Chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene, at the edge of the cliffs offers picturesque photo opportunities of Dingli Cliffs, both towards the sea and even inland.
This small chapel, which is accessed via a flight of steps, has a very plain façade, a round window over the door, a slanting roof and a small Cross on top. Back in 1446, this chapel was in existence, however it was later rebuilt in 1646 after it had collapsed. An inscription atop the main door refers to the opening of the chapel in mid-April 1646.
This chapel was even used as a point of reference for fishermen at sea in the south-western side of the Maltese Islands.
Just on the right hand-side of the door is a latin inscription “Non gode l’immunità ecclesiastica”,most probably dating back to the late 16th century. Simply translated, it referred to the fact that the church did not offer sanctuary or protection to criminals.
In the past, mass at the chapel was held on the 22nd of the July, the day of the feast of St. Mary Magdalene – a tradition which still persists to this day!
Red Carpeted Poppy Fields in the Maltese Islands – 07/04/2020
The Red Poppy (Peprina Ħamra, Papaver rhoeas) which flowers between March and June is a very common plant which is often found in arable fields and waysides. It forms a long-lived seed bank that can germinated when the soil is disturbed.
This annual plant which grows from seed is actually indigenous to the Maltese Islands, and has been present on our islands before the arrival of man. Probably, it originated in the Far East and Asia. It is one of the most popular European wildflowers, often used to signify World War I.
The common Red poppy is different than the Opium Poppy (Xaħxieħ Vjola, Papaver somniferum). In fact, the heads and latex of the Opium Poppy were used as sedative in traditional Maltese medicine. About 6 species of poppy can be found growing in the Maltese Islands.
The black seeds of the Common Poppy and the leaves are actually edible both raw or cooked. Moreover, in the past red dye was extracted from petals to create food colouring of medicine and wine.
Spring-time visitors to the Maltese Islands – the Eurasian Hoopoes – 06/04/2020
Photo courtesy of Kevin Francica
One of the most colourful European birds is the Eurasian Hoopoe (Daqquqa tat-Toppu, Upupa epops), a medium-sized bird with a wingspan of about 45cm. This bird is one of the many species which visit the Maltese Islands during spring-time, most often between mid-March to mid-April. In the Maltese Islands, it is often encountered in open countryside, garrigue habitats and even woodlands. The recent days, continuous strong easterly winds brought numerous hoopoes to the Maltese Islands. In fact, the south-western cliffs of Dingli offered the right shelter for such magnificent birds.
The Hoopoe is easily identifiable by its orange body, black-white striped wings, long curved bill and a distinctive tufted crest on its head. The crest usually fans out when the bird is on alert-mode or when it is about to fly off from the ground. Considering their distinctive appearance, Hoopoes were considered sacred in Ancient Egypt with their depictions being discovered along the walls of tombs and temples.
The flight of the hoopoe is very similar to that of a butterfly, flapping a couple of times and then then flying with its wings closed. It is often seen flying low over the ground. The diet of the Eurasian hoopoe is mainly focused on insects, but sometimes seeds and berries are also consumed.
Did you know that the English name “Hoopoe” actually derives from the call of the bird, similar to op-oop-oop!! These birds also have a strange behaviour – they sunbathe by spreading out their wings and tilting their hands up!!
The Rare Quince Tree Springtime Blossoms – 05/04/2020
Springtime in Malta is the most appealing time of the year, where nature is at its finest and when many cultivated fruit trees bloom. Apart from the typical cultivated trees, one naturalised tree, found in the wild and which blooms during this time of the year is the Quince.
The Quince Tree (Cydonia oblona, Sfarġel/Sfejġel), which is actually native to Southwest Asia, was introduced in the Maltese Islands over 500 years ago. The tree was initially cultivated for its fruit, but it later became naturalised in the wild. Today, its frequency in the wild can be described as rare.
The yellow fruit, which matures in late autumn resembles a pear or apple in shape. It is not eaten raw since it is very bitter and astringent, however it has a high concentration of pectin, a naturally occurring substance that allows jams to set. Because of such high pectin concentration, pectin helps jams to thicken, so less sugars are used.
In fact, annually, The Cliffs Interpretation Centre prepares Quince Jam, from quince fruits harvested from down the cliffs. Such tradition, which has been revived after three generations, is also related to the medicinal properties of the quince fruit. It is said that a teaspoon of quince jam can be dissolved in boiling water for the relief of intestinal discomfort!!
Common yet Pretty Flowers – Greater Snapdragon – 04/04/2020
Rubble walls in Malta often serve a multitude of different purposes – not just as border between fields and to prevent soil erosion but also they act as a refuge for wildlife and wild plants.
Amongst the wild plants often associated with rubble walls is the Greater Snapdragon (Papoċċi Ħomor, Antirrhinum turtousum).
Pollination of snapdragon flowers is quite a complicated task! The pollinating insect, such as a bee has to have a particular weight to be able to open the flower and collect the nectar, while simultaneously pollinating different flowers!
Did you know that snapdragons were used as decorative flowers, back during Roman Times, over 1550 years ago?
Daily Facebook and Website Nature Posts – 03/04/2020
Whilst staying inside, there are still ways for you to enjoy the nature, local produce and history of the Dingli countryside. At The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, we will continue to actively engage with online viewers and students to bring nature to you, with informative daily posts and website updates!
Early sprouting of the Wild Asparagus – 03/03/2020
2020 has so far been characterised by dry spells with January being the driest in 13 years, and February being regarded as one of the driest throughout recorded Maltese meteorological history. The typical winter climate of the Maltese Islands, is typified by mild, wet winters, but the lack of rain this year has brought about conditions akin to droughts with an unusual state of dryness caused by insufficient rainfall during the wet season.
Apart from the consequences of water scarcity which are being felt by the agricultural sector, the lack of rain is also being manifested in wild plants.
Usually, spring in the Maltese Islands means time for wild asparagus foraging. However, this year, the young asparagus shoots have started appearing much earlier – as early as February. Early ferning of the asparagus (when spears mature, become woody and develop into fern-like spikes), are indicative of temperature and weather conditions. The hotter temperatures are and the less rainfall there is, the more rapidly the spears grow and open-up.
The edible shoots, which are soft and break easily when picking, grow straight up from the plant. The thin shoots are the edible bits, often with a uniquely bitter-aromatic flavour.
The wild asparagus is actually a type of uncultivated asparagus which grows on its own in the wild. The related cultivated asparagus has been cultivated for over 2000 years, with well-known culinary and medicinal benefits. The edible shoots have diuretic, anti-rheumatic and purifying properties. They are low in calories and sodium, and a good source of iron, vitamins, calcium and dietary fibre.
The wild asparagus is also foraged and processed in the kitchen of The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, when in season.
Educational activities by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre – 16/02/2020
The Maltese Islands are currently experiencing a very dry winter, with mild temperatures and fine weather. These sunny days are prefect for being out in the fresh air, enjoying the countryside and panoramic views of Dingli Cliffs.
The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, has innovatively merged gastronomy and local produce with educational awareness, and has been offering educational activities for all types of visitors since its opening 9 years ago. This has highlighted self-sufficiency, with the company that has planned and manages The Centre following the sustainability’s three concepts – social, environment, economic – in its operations. The gastronomical experience offered at The Centre complements the walking trail and the educational activities offered to provide an authentic visitor experience by locals.
The target participants for these educational activities is very wide, ranging from locals, tourists, groups, elderly, secondary school students, children, language students, association members, environmental organisations, team-building and more. Activities are also customised according to the target audience’s needs. The range of events organised can be viewed from our website at http://www.thecliffs.com.mt/past-events/.
The activities are organised all year-round, and all are offered for FREE. Participants are able to enjoy the green countryside in a recreational manner, whilst learning about the area’s geology, ecology, local produce, history, archaeology and more.
Local edible nutritious weeds: the Stinging Nettles – 27/01/2020
The lush Maltese countryside is now indicative of winter-time, associated with greenery and wild flowering plants. Amongst the plant which blends in the greenery, but which often gets one’s attention is the Stinging Nettle, having a notorious reputation for stinging the skin when the bristles on the leaves and stems are touched. In fact, the species’ latin name Urtica, is derived from the Latin verb urere, meaning “to burn”. The nettle is often familiar to most as a weed, partly because it thrives in disturbed soils.
The stinging sensation is brought about by chemicals, among which is histamine, which irritate the skin to protect the plant from predators. Such chemical is easily destroyed by heating, yielding many benefits.
Three species of nettles are found in the Maltese Islands, namely Common Nettle (Urtica dioca), Small nettle (Urtica urens, Ħurrieqa żgħira), Roman Nettle (Urtica pilulifera, Ħurrieqa taż-żibeġ) and the Large-leaved nettle (Urtica membranacea, Ħurrieqa komuni).
The nettle can be used to treat a wide variety of health ailments, including rheumatic conditions. The plant also contains substances which reduce inflammation, and if taken regularly, can help with hay fever symptoms. Traditionally, in the Maltese Islands, washing or immersing in warm water of boiled stinging nettles treats chilblains (seqej).
Since the nettles are common throughout Europe, the use of the nettle dates back to the Bronze Age in Denmark, when fabric was woven out of nettle fibre. At the UK, in Roman Times, nettle roots was used in the boiling of meat to tenderise it. Uniforms from Napoleon’s armada were woven from nettles. In the First World War, nettle cloth was manufactured in Germany and dye from the nettles was used to camouflage UK’s military uniforms in World War II.
While the nettles as usually regarded as weeds, they nevertheless are very nutritious to eat, and their flavour when cooked is similar to spinach mixed with cucumber. They are very palatable, and are best harvested when young. Nettles are rich in Vitamin A, C, D, iron, calcium, potassium and silica. In fact, January is the season when the nettles are young in the Maltese Islands and The Cliffs Interpretation Centre prepares fresh specialities, ranging from fried nettle leaves and Nettle soup.
Time for the Yellow-throated Crocus blooms (05/11/2019)
In particular garrigue areas within the Maltese Islands, autumn time brings along the blooming of the Yellow-throated Crocus flower (Crocus longiflorus, Żagħfran Salvaġġ).
This plant belongs in the Iris plant family and appears after the first autumn rains. It grows just to a height of 15cm, blooming as a six-petalled, lilac violet flower with darker veins on the outer side.
The uncultivated plant which is found growing in the wild in the Maltese Islands, Italy and Sicily is not the same as the one which produces the saffron spice. The spice is collected from the stigma of the Crocus sativus, which is closely related to the Maltese one. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, more expensive than gold, with each gram costing between €30 to €60. Over 70,000 flowers are required to produce just 500 grams of saffron. The word saffron is derived from the Arabic term asfar, similar to the Maltese term isfar, and meaning yellow.
During the FREE eco-walks by THE CLIFFS Interpretation Centre, participants can spot the yellow-throated crocus and wander. Join us in one of our free eco-walks on Wednesday and Fridays at 11:00 – For more details email [email protected] or call us on 79642380.
Time for Carob Harvesting (03/09/2019)
One of the characteristic and widespread tree species of Maltese maquis habitats is the Carob Tree (Siġra tal-Ħarrub, Ceratonia siliqua). The name comes from the Greek word to refer to a horn, due to the shape of the seed pod.
Being indigenous to the Mediterranean region, the carob tree has numerous adaptations, amongst which are deep roots and some leaves shed all year to act as dried organic matter for nutrient cycling. The carob is even part of the local linguistic idiom, often associated with longevity, in idioms such as “xiħ daqs ħarruba”. The carob tree is thought to have been introduced in the Maltese Islands in antiquity and later becoming part of the landscape.
Traditionally, the tree has been used as fodder crop, but during the second world war, it was used for human consumption, as a supplement to rationed food. The carob is also relevant for the honey industry, since carobs provide food to honey bees. In fact, carob honey, which is harvested in November, follows the blooming of the carob flowers.
Carob is quite nutritious and a great source of vitamins, protein, iron and calcium. The Cliffs Interpretation Centre produces and packages the carob syrup (Ġulepp tal-Ħarrub) which has been used to soothe sore throats and ease coughs when diluted in hot water and lemon juice.
Blooming Caper bushes and traditional Capers (04/07/2019)
The Caper Bush is synonymous with summer time, when the evergreen shrub produces large white flowers with purple stamens.
The Spineless Caper (Capparis spinosa, Kappar) is indigenous, hence its presence is natural in the Maltese Islands. It is found commonly on garrigue habitats, rock faces, along crevices within walls and even in disturbed areas.
This plant is well-adapted to thriving in the Mediterranean climate. The root system is extensive with the ability to extract waters and minerals from soils. The thick, fleshy leaves offer good storage for water, and less water is lost by transpiration.
The flowering of the caper bush is also ideal for pollination, since during this time, few are the flowers which are in bloom. The plant uses insects to pollinate it and birds to help spread its seeds.
It is also thought that capers have medicinal properties, with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and astringent properties.
The traditional caper hand-picking involves collecting the flower bud before it opens, then pickling and using in the culinary traditions of the Maltese Islands. With pickling in vinegar and/or salt, intense flavour is developed since mustard oil is released from each bud. At The Cliffs, Capers are featured as accompaniments in several dishes, ranging from starters, refreshing platters and salads, and even in seasonal specialities.
The surrounding garrigue is already indicating summer conditions. Only patches of green grasses remain, otherwise several plants have already dried up. But, the purple blooms of the Wild Artichoke still add some colour to the landscape.
The Wild Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus, Qaqoċċ tax-Xewk) is a wild variant of the edible Globe Artichoke. This thistle-like plant is in fact part of the sunflower family of plants, and is naturally present in the Mediterranean region. The leaves of both the wild and cultivated varieties show the distinction between these plants, since the former is spinier and full of thistles.
This plant has several adaptations to our hot, dry summers – it is a herbaceous perennial with rigid spiny leaves to deter herbivorous animals.
This plant was already used in the 4th century BC by Ancient Greeks in their cuisine. In fact, both the flowering bud and stalk are edible. It is also said that in traditional Malta, the wild artichoke leaves were used for medicinal purposes and used as a tonic against fever. At The Cliffs, the cultivated globe artichoke features as one of the refreshing starter dishes, alongside typical local Maltese produce – sundried tomatoes, capers and olives.
Free Walks and the bright purple Orchid (16/05/2019)
The garrigue areas of Dingli Cliffs have started to obtain the summer landscape, with patches of brown grasses amidst the remaining greenery. A plant which clearly stands out is Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis, Orkida Piramidali), through its bright purple flowers and clusters of orchid blooms.
Whilst this plant is Indigenous, it is quite frequently encountered during May. The flower stalk grows directly from underground rhizomes, tubers or bulbs. The bottom flowers bloom first, followed by each layer in an upward movement, forming a pyramidal-shaped flower head. The scent of this orchid varies according to the time of day, from sweet-scented in the morning to a musty-scent later in the day.
Each flower has two whitish flaps which help in the process of pollination. This way, pollinating insects, especially butterflies and moths, find their way to the nectar much easier by following the flaps. Usually each plant has two tubers next to each other, whereby the bigger tuber feeds the flower whilst the smaller one is like a spare bulb, which will feed the flower the following year.
In the Middle East tradition, the dried tubers of this orchid was used in the making of Salep, a type of powdery flour, which is rich in starch and nutritional value. Drinks made from Salep were traditionally used for curing coughs and cold, amongst other benefits.
A very similar orchid, which however retains an endemic status in the Maltese Islands, is that of the Maltese Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis urvilleana, Orkida Piramidali ta’ Malta). The flowers of the endemic plant are smaller and with a lighter pink to white colour, with earlier blossoming in March. This rare protected species of orchid can sometimes be encountered in Dingli Cliffs.
Despite the approaching summer, the Common Pryamidal Orchid is among the wild flora which can be abundantly found at Dingli Cliffs during this time of the year. Join us in one of our eco-walks – more information at 79642380 or our website – https://www.thecliffs.com.mt/faq/
Maltese Wild flora and their cultivated relatives (11/05/2019)
The transformation of human societies from hunting and gathering to farming – the Neolithic Revolution – resulted in crop cultivation as the first expression of agriculture. Dating back to between 10,000BC and 2000BC, this transition involved collection of seeds, planting and cultivating wild grains. In fact, the Mediterranean region was one of the areas in which crops were first domesticated from their crop wild relatives.
Traditionally, domesticated crops followed results of actions of man and nature, by which a variety with more desirable characteristics is selected for propagation. Together with natural selection (environmental conditions and soil type), the result is development of crop landraces. Hence, a crop wild relative is a wild plant, closely related to a domesticated plant, either direct wild ancestor or belonging to a closely related species. Wild relatives of crop plants provide a very important resource to maintain agricultural production and improve agro-ecosystems.
In the Maltese Islands, we have various examples of wild plants. One which appears during springtime is the Wild Asparagus (Spraġġ Xewwieki, Asparagus aphyllus), which is closely related to the cultivated Garden Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). The young shoots of the local wild asparagus are used as a spring vegetable, and may be eaten raw or cooked. Both the wild and cultivated plants are perennials, providing a good source of protein and dietary fibre.
Another common wild plant is that of the Wild Carrot (Zunnarija Salvaġġa, Daucus carota), which often flowers during springtime. This very common indigenous wild plant has pinnate leaves, very similar to that of the domesticated carrot (Daucus carota subs. sativus). Even the wild carrot roots are edible when young, however they soon become woody-texture and no longer palatable. Springtime in Malta is also characterised by the blooming of the Hairy Garlic (Tewm Muswaf, Allium subhirsutum), a wild derivative of the garlic (Allium sativum). In the Maltese Islands alone, there are about 16 different species of Allium, but the Hairy Garlic is amongst the most common. This wild plant with small white flowers prefers moist rocky places. The kitchen of The Cliffs uses wild garlic flowers as garnish, adding a garlic punch to food dishes. Other wild relatives of the onion are the Wild Leek (Kurrat tax-Xatt, Allium commutatum) and the Maltese Leek (Allium melitense), often visible in late spring.
Cruciferous vegetables (Brassica spp.) include various types of vegetables cultivated for food production such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, rocket and similar green-leafy vegetables. Wild flora of cultivated cruciferous vegetables include those of the Field mustard/Wild Turnip (Liftija, Brassica rapa subs. sylvestris), Perennial Wall Rocket (Ġarġir Isfar, Diplotaxis tenuifolia,), Rapeseed (Nevew, Brassoca napus subs. oleifera), Wild Beet (Selq, Beta vulgaris subs. vulgaris) and Wild Cabbage (Kaboċċa, Salvaġġa, Brassica oleracea), with many of these plants have edible leaves.
Understanding the presence of crop wild relatives in the Maltese Islands, helps to increase an appreciation of the intricate links between the environment and agricultural practices. To gain more knowledge on edible wild plants, join us in one of our free eco-walks – http://www.thecliffs.com.mt/tour-information/
Wild Garlic Blooms and culinary use (24/04/2019)
The garlic is amongst the most common ingredients of the typical Mediterranean cuisine. Being a versatile seasoning, garlic complements many savoury dishes and it has been used for cooking and medicine for several thousand years.
The use of garlic dates back thousands of years – being consumed by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
The garlic forms part of the Allium family, which groups several different types of plants ranging from the cultivated onion, garlic, shallot, leek and chives. Allium comes from the Greek aleo, meaning ‘to avoid’ because of the pungent smell of the garlic.
Although the garlic is grown on a cultivated basis, the garlic may also grow in the wild in areas where it has become naturalised, the process by which a non-native species spreads and continues to reproduce in the wild. In fact, in the Maltese Islands there are about 16 different species of Allium, amongst which is the common Hairy Garlic (Allium subhirsutum, Tewm Muswaf Salvaġġ). Both the flowers and the leaves are edible.
This species with white flowers prefers moist rocky places within the garrigue habitat of small spiny aromatic shrubs. The wild garlic can be easily recognised by its pungent smell, typical of the garlic.
Garlic itself has been traditionally used as a cure for various ailments. Recent studies also focus on the garlic’s benefits in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and the common cold. During the hard times of World War II, the Maltese used to eat the garlic raw as a disinfectant and antiseptic.
Whilst flowers and leaves are edible, the kitchen of The Cliffs often uses the wild garlic flowers as a garnish, adding a garlic punch to food dishes.
Spring-time flowers of Dingli Cliffs (15/04/2019)
The presence of spring is clear in the surrounding landscape – the fine balance between winter and summer is distinctive by the colourful carpets of wild plants, typical of spring and including several plants.
The Crown Daisy (Lellux, Glebionis coronaria) is very common throughout the Maltese Islands. In fact, this plant is found all over the Mediterranean region. The young shoots and stems of this plant used to be eaten raw or cooked in the past.
Spring time is also the time for the blooming of the Borage (Fidloqqom, Borago officinalis). This pretty blue star-shaped flower is quite beneficial as a herb with particular medicinal properties for rheumatism, and traditional usage in the past related to cough-remedies.
Another miniscule but very common flowering plant is that of the Blue-Scarlet Pimpernel (Ħarira Ħamra, Anagallis arvensis). This indigenous plant, which was present in the Maltese Islands before the first arrival of man, is low-growing, with flowers opening only when the sun shines.
Springtime is also distinctly marked by the presence of the fine orchids, such as the Small-flowered tongue Orchid (Orkida tal-Ilsien iż-Żgħira, Serapias parviflora). This frequent orchid, only growing to around 10cm high, often flowers between March – April, and is native to the Mediterranean Basin.
Dingli Cliffs offers some of the most panoramic views – both of the plunging cliffs and the typical aromatic shrubs of the garrigue. At The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, free eco-walks are organised throughout the year. This time is one of the best to appreciate the surrounding landscape. One of the latest eco-tour was organised for a Maltese martial arts group consisting of instructors, trainees and parents. For more information visit our website at http://www.thecliffs.com.mt or call us on 79642380.
Malta’s own Giant Fennel (28/03/2019)
This springtime, the Giant Fennel may be abundantly seen throughout the Maltese countryside. It is found in different areas, varying from garrigue habitats, abandoned fields, disturbed grounds, countryside lanes and more. Everywhere you look at Dingli Cliffs, one can find the umbrella-shaped flowers of this plant. The yellow flowers appear from end of February to June, from stalks growing to heights of 2.5m.
The plant species is different when compared to the European Ferule or the African Ferule. Whilst the Maltese plant has links to the Tunisian one, just end of December 2018, it was identified that the Maltese plant of the “Ferla” is endemic to the Maltese Islands, and given a new scientific name – Ferula melitensis.
The Maltese plant is more robust that the Common Fennel (Ferula communis) because it had to adapt to the Islands’ conditions, and the isolation from North Africa. Other Maltese endemic plants tied to North Africa include the Maltese Salt Tree (Darniella melitensis) and the Maltese Fleabane (Chiliadenus bocconei).
The Fennel’s purposes were also used as firewood and dried stalks were used to sharpen razor blades. In the past, this species was used for medicinal purposes for the treatment of skin infection, and dysentery. Inadequate doses were found to be poisonous.
This plant is easily distinguished from the Common Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) because the Giant Fennel has a thicker stem, darker foliage, larger and denser inflorescences, larger seeds and lack of aromas.
End of winter and early spring time is an ideal time for the blooming of several wild plants, amongst which is the borage, found in different habitats along Dingli Cliffs.
The Borage (Fidloqqom, Borago officinalis) is easily recognisable by its edible, bright blue star-shaped flowers. Being indigenous to the Mediterranean and Central Europe, this plant blooms from January to May. Sometimes, one may encounter whitish or pink flowering borage plants.
The Latin name ‘Borage’ could be related to the cordial effects brought by the borage through its medicinal properties, or from the Italian word ‘borra’ because the whole plant is covered by short hair.
Both flowers and leaves are edible. The leaves are quite hairy and tough, but when cooked, the texture becomes smooth, similar to those of the spinach. It is a good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and potassium.
In traditional Maltese medicinal practices, the flowers were used to treat coughs. Other benefits of the borage include its diuretic, tonic, emollient, expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties. Borage oil, extracted from the seeds is used for skin disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, stress, diabetes and for the prevention of heart disease. In the past, Maltese spring multiflora honey used to be produced from the nectar of borage flowers, amongst other plants.
The Borage is featured in The Cliffs’ Interpretation Centre cuisine, we cook with Borage according to the season. Throughout the year, we have the Ravioli Borage, ravioli stuffed with the leaves of the borage, garnished with local herbs and local pecan nuts from trees planted by the British 200 years ago at Buskett Gardens. More info on our menu http://www.thecliffs.com.mt/menu/
Nature’s bounty harvest at The Cliffs Interpretation Centre – Wild Asparagus (13/03/2019)
Spring time – the balance between winter and summer weather – is distinctive by the bountiful presence of wild plants. Dingli Cliffs currently thrive with the surrounding garrigue and carpets full of wild plants, amongst which is the Wild Asparagus (Spraġġ Xewwieki, Asparagus aphyllus).
During the year, this branched woody shrub is a clear indication of its adaptation to our hot dry summers. Instead of leaves, this shrub is characterised by spiny shoots. However, the new sprouts of the Asparagus – juicy, soft tips – appear during early springtime. The young green sprouts are edible and can be foraged for culinary purposes. Did you know that the oldest surviving recipe books, prepared over 2000 years ago, includes a recipe for cooking asparagus?
The asparagus is quite nutritious with a good source of Vitamin C and Potassium. In fact, in the 4th Century in Greece, Hippocrates was recommending asparagus for is diuretic and health aid qualities.
In fact, through its motto “A new concept…local produce”, The Cliffs Interpretation Centre has innovated the use of nature’s bounty in the harvest of wild edible plants. It has managed to combine local produce with environmental and social consciousness, including traditional foraging for plants. The kitchen of The Cliffs prepares seasonal specialities features this local plant. Furthermore, during the free eco-walks organised by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre several wild edible plants may be encountered, according to the season.
Meeting Mr. Joseph Borg, a Genealogist, and author of Documents on Ghar il-Kbir, Malta 1588 – 1733 (22/02/2019)
Earlier today, Mr. Joseph Borg, a genealogist and author of “Documents on Għar il-Kbir, Malta 1588-1733” visited The Cliffs Interpretation Centre. Through his profession, Mr. Joseph Borg was introduced to the marriage contracts involving inhabitants of the cave complex. His interests in ancestral heritage, genealogy and enthusiasm for the cave complex dwellers are remarkable.
The book was published in 2013, and focuses on eighteen documents, signed between 1588 and 1733, reflecting the cave dwellers and their social aspects. The transcribed and translated comments are notarial deeds of couples prior to getting married, declaring the goods they were bringing into the marriage. Items in the marriage dowries included fields, clothes, animals, decorations, utensils and more. It is interesting to note that in the majority of cases, residents of the cave got married to people outside the cave, such as Rabat, Żebbug, Mosta and Siġġiewi.
The cave complex of Għar il-Kbir, consisting of numerous interconnecting caves, was inhabited by people till 1835, with the heyday of population in the 1600s. Whilst the ceiling of the cave has collapsed due to bombs thrown by the British to make the cave unhabitable, today some features of cave dwelling can still be seen.
Għar il-Kbir is one of the sites visited during the free eco-walks organised by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre. For more information on our eco-walks contact us on [email protected] or 79273747.
Recognition at the National Scale – The Cliffs Interpretation Centre as one of Malta’s sustainable enterprises (08/02/2019)
The Cliffs Interpretation Centre and La Pinta Ltd. which manages it, received five prestigious awards in 2018, related to the innovative and sustainable approach in amalgamating gastronomy with free information provision. At The Centre, we give part of what you give to the environment. When visitors dine at The Cliffs, they are supporting local produce and our innovative initiative to disseminate environmental education. In fact, a percentage of the bill is reprocessed by The Centre to create FREE informative activities. This way, the project is self-sufficient, and revenues from the catering facilities are used to provide visitors with the necessary free information, expertise and support resources to explore the area.
Before Dingli Cliffs was designated part of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites, and even after, visitors (both locals and foreigners) were not aware of the natural environment and local produce offered in the area, and their main interest was the views. Hence, The Centre has sought to address the previous lack of services by blending the environment, tourism and local aspects whilst offering a service for visitors arriving at Dingli Cliffs. The Centre’s main aim is to provide the public with unique information about Dingli Cliffs and the surroundings using innovative means, and by doing so, reaching visitors more effectively. It introduced previously non-existent facilities for kilometres along Dingli Cliffs, including providing the only public toilets along the whole stretch of the cliffs.
The Centre has received third prize in the 2018 Sustainable Enterprise Awards, organised annually by the Ministry for the Economy, Investment and Small Businesses.
The aim of these awards is to recognise and reward businesses that have made a significant contribution to the varying aspects of sustainable development. The criteria upon which assessment included Proof of commitment, together with achieved results and long-term viability. The award enshrines the three main pillars constituting a sustainable enterprise – Economic sustainability, Environmental sustainability and Social sustainability.
La Pinta Ltd, would like to thank the Dingli Local Council, for entrusting it with this project and for its on-going collaboration to ensure that Dingli Cliffs continues to be sustainably enjoyed by both tourists and locals alike. For more information, or to plan your next visit to the Dingli Cliffs and nearby attractions, visit www.thecliffs.com.mt or contact The Cliffs on [email protected].
Two other awards for The Cliffs Interpretation Centre – Recognition at the European scale (02/02/2019)
2018 was an exceptional year for The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, which received five prestigious awards in 2018, related to the innovative approach of La Pinta Ltd in merging gastronomy and information provision, through a best practice approach related to sustainability and its three pillars. The project is self-sufficient, whereby revenues from the catering facilities are used to provide visitors with the necessary free information, expertise and support resources to explore the area.
Living at Dingli, having a sense of belonging to the rural environment and being linked to the area’s stakeholders in the area, La Pinta Ltd. saw the need to blend the environment, tourism, culture and local aspects in one comprehensive experience. In fact, at The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, visitors can make use of several public facilities, including information resources, walking guides, all-year round free eco-walks, meeting and exhibition spaces, and catering facilities.
Open for European applicants, The Centre has been recognised in two other awards schemes:
Diploma of Recognition for creating a positive rural environment in the 2018 Anders Wall Award
First prize in the category Contributions by Cultural and Creative Industries in the ECTN Sustainable Cultural Tourism 2018 Award
The prestigious Anders Wall Award Environment is dedicated to recognising individuals or organisations for their special contribution to the rural environment within the EU, with achievements related to preserving the landscape and cultural heritage, providing biodiversity and contributing to sustainable local development. La Pinta was awarded the Diploma of Recognition for its positive environmental impacts with benefits at the local, national and European levels. The Anders Wall Award is organised by the Anders Wall Foundation in association with the European Commission – Directorate General for the Environment, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry and the Friends of the Countryside. The Anders Wall Award ceremony was organised at Constance Lake, Germany in May 2018, and La Pinta Ltd. was invited to address the guests and fellow nominees, to explain the innovative concept of The Centre.
The Cliffs Interpretation Centre has been declared as one of the destinations of sustainable cultural tourism in Europe through the ECTN Sustainable Cultural Tourism Award. The special edition was organised by European Cultural Tourism Network (ECTN) in partnership with Europa Nostra and the European Travel Commission, as a contribution to 2018 being the European Year of Cultural Heritage (EYCH 2018). The contributions of cultural tourism relate to the protection and promotion of cultural heritage, extension of the tourism period throughout the whole year, and the increase in awareness of both locals and tourists. The Centre’s achievements have been recognised as an example of excellence with significant and evident results in enhancing visitor experience, while respecting traditions and involving local communities.
La Pinta Ltd, would like to thank the Dingli Local Council, for entrusting it with this project and for its on-going collaboration to ensure that Dingli Cliffs continues to be sustainably enjoyed by both tourists and locals alike. For more information, or to plan your next visit to the Dingli Cliffs and nearby attractions, visit www.thecliffs.com.mt or contact The Cliffs on [email protected].
Time to spot the Caterpillars! (23/11/2018)
All moths and butterflies go through complete metamorphosis, from egg to larva to pupa to adult. In fact, the caterpillar stage is part of the four-part lifecycle of every butterfly and moth. Caterpillars have soft bodies, sometimes protected with hairs, and a head with chewing mouthparts, since they are avid grass-eaters. Their colour patterns are good camouflage, whilst some caterpillars are poisonous to deter predators.
Despite Malta’s small size, the insect fauna is quite considerable. In fact, about 20 species of butterflies and about 500 species of moths have been recorded from the Maltese Islands.
Perhaps the most exceptional butterfly that we may encounter in the Maltese Islands is the Maltese Swallowtail (Papilio machaon subs. melitensis, Farfett tar-Reġina/Farfett tal-Bużbież). Prior to becoming a winged insect, the mature caterpillar of the Maltese Swallowtail Butterfly is unique, with a green body and transverse black stripes spotted with red. The swallowtail is Malta’s only endemic butterfly. When alarmed, it flocks out a pair of scent glands from behind the head, orange in colour and emitting a strong smell to try to deter its predators. It is often found feeding on the fennel and rue plants, which are the host plants. The butterfly feeding on the yellow-throated crocus plants – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr34bxMlCdo
Another caterpillar to spot during Autumn time is the Maltese Spurge Hawksmoth (Baħrija tat-Tengħud, Hyles sammuti) which often lives on the spurge plant and feeds on its leaves. The toxic liquid produced by the plant to defend against herbivores is used by the Spurge Hawksmoth caterpillar, which accumulates the poison in their body to protect itself from predators. The caterpillar is smooth and black with several white dots and a red line than runs from its head to back. In fact, the bright colour of the caterpillar is due to the absorption of poison from the plant to the caterpillar’s body, which is even endemic
Often the caterpillar makes a cocoon to protect itself before it transforms. Inside the pupal case, the moth or butterfly completes its transformation to the final stage and emerges as a winged adult, important for their roles as valuable pollinators. This time of the year is amongst the best to encounter caterpillars and butterflies in the surrounding countryside of Dingli Cliffs. The FREE guided walk of Tour B at The Cliffs Interpretation Centre allows us to appreciate more these elusive creatures.
Sardinian Warbler chicks ready to flee the Nest – 23/07/2018
The Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melancocephala, Bufula Sewda) is one of the breeding birds that may be found in the Maltese Islands.
This little passerine bird, which weighs just about 19g, builds its nest hidden in low shrubs or bushes – in fact, within the site area of The Cliffs Interpretation Centre, there has been a nest with several chicks in a small shrub.
Whilst this active warbler is quite common in the Maltese Islands today, this bird was previously an uncommon winter visitor, and it has only been breeding in the Maltese Island for about 150 years. Nowadays, the bird breeds in southern Europe till Turkey and in North Africa.
The breeding season of this warbler is from February to August, with clutches of between 3 to 5 eggs. Males and females are very different in colour, but both share building the nest, incubation and feeding the chicks. After hatching, the young take about 13 days to fledge and they still depend on their parents for the first couple of weeks.
For more information on the biodiversity of the Maltese Islands, especially that of Dingli Cliffs, join us in our of our free Eco-walks organised by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre – fill our online booking form or call on 79642380.
27th September 2016 – The Honey Buzzard
Different Honey Buzzards sighted close to Dingli Cliffs in September 2017 (All photos by Dunstan Saliba)
The Honey Buzzard, a bird of prey is a type of bird species that is occasionally sighted in the Maltese Islands.
This bird feeds mostly on insects, but also small mammals and small birds. It soars on flat wings, and the sexes are quite easily identified by the colour of their plumage. The Honey Buzzard travels over long distances when migrating, and hence it uses magnetic orientation and visual memory of landscapes to navigate. It also prefers to soar on thermals, rising air over land, hence avoiding large expanses of water surfaces.
The Honey Buzzard, similar to other migrating birds, travels from its European breeding grounds to its African wintering ground in autumn, returning back to the breeding grounds in the springtime. The Maltese Islands are not a major stop-over point, but several species can be sighted, especially at Clapham Junction site overlooking Buskett Gardens, one of the landmarks of The Cliffs Trail Map produced by The Cliffs Interpretation Centre.
Education is recognised as an ideal way forward to protect and conserve biodiversity. The Cliffs Interpretation Centre had hosted the first seminar to local hunters by an ornithologist, with the aim of such seminar to enhance hunters’ knowledge on birds and their behaviour by taking photographs.
20th October 2016 – The Spurge Hawkmoth (Caterpillar)
The caterpillar of the Maltese Spurge Hawksmoth (Baħrija tat-Tengħud, Hyles sammuti) lives on the spurge plant, by feeding on the leaves. The spurge plant is typical of the Maltese Islands, which often thrives in garrigue vegetation communities. This wild plant defends itself from herbivores such as goats and sheep, by producing a toxic milky-white liquid. The poison found in the plant is used by the caterpillar of the Spurge Hawkmoth, which accumulates the poison in their body to protect itself from predators. In fact, the bright colour of the caterpillar is due to the assimilation of poison from the plant to their body. In Malta, the species of the spurge hawksmoth is protected since it is endemic and can only found in the islands. The caterpillar is smooth and black with several white dots and a coral line than runs from its head to back. A fully grown caterpillar may be about 10cm long.
In their adult life form, hawk moths are large sized with narrow wings and stout bodies. They have powerful wings built for speed, over long distances. Some hawkmoths can fly at 50 kilometers per hour and are among the fastest insects. In the Maltese Islands, this species is endemic.
3rd October 2016 – the Mediterranean Tiger Moth
The Mediterranean Tiger Moth (Cymbalophora pudica, Żarżur), identified by its tessellated pattern made of black shapes on a light background, can be seen from September to October. The tiger moth that was photographed at The Cliffs Interpretation Centre was recorded during the day and it appeared to be resting, since this moth is nocturnal. The meaning of the Maltese name is that of buzzing, since while flying the moth makes a buzzing sound. The female moths lay eggs in autumn, and by the following spring the caterpillar is fully grown. The pupa changes into adult form after the first autumn rains, and that is when the moth can be seen.
8th September 2016 – Autumn migration and the vibrant bee-eater
September is one of the best times of the year to meet across several of the migratory birds that fly by the Maltese Islands during the autumn season.
A common bird migrant that often visits the Maltese Islands during this time of the year is the Bee Eater (Merops apiaster, Qerd in-naħal) with pointed wings and very distinguishable colourful plumage. Their extravagant bright colours often catch the eye of the observer, or else you may hear its very particular repetitive call. The bird has social habitats – it is often seen in large flocks and breeds in colonies.
The bee-eater is a specialist in catching insects whilst in flight. Despite its name, only one of the ten insect that it catches is a bee. In the Maltese Islands, this bird feeds mainly on wasps, dragonflies, butterflies and grasshoppers. During the past years, this birds was also noted breeding in the Maltese Islands.
Tiny dots in the clouds…a large flock of the Bee-eater over Buskett
One of the best sites for bird-watching during Autumn is Buskett Gardens, the largest woodland area in Malta, located about 2km from The Cliffs Interpretation Centre.
10th August 2016 – The unmistakable sound of summer…from the Cicada
Heard everywhere in summer is the songs of the male Cicada (Cicada orni, Werżieq ta’ b’inhar). This insect is the most active during the hottest times of the day, that’s why it sings throughout the day. The sound originates from the blur-speed vibration of part of this winged insect’s abdomen.
The cicada appears when the larvae dig out of the soil and climb onto trees. Upon metamomorphisis, the cicada turns into its adult life form. Only males sing to attract females to mate. Eggs are laid in the soil and these hatch in late summer. The newly hatched-larvae spend the majority of their lives in the soil.
This winged insect makes one of the loudest animal sounds, but it is difficult to see one, since when threatened the cicada stop singing. Once mating occurs, adult cicadas start dying. That’s why end of summer is characterised by such a silence!
28th July 2016 – The Mediterranean Chameleon
This chameleon was rescued whilst crossing a road close to Dingli Cliffs. It was then released in a shrub. Currently, from mid-July to September, during the mating season, one might see pairs of chameleon, but throughout the year, the chameleon is a solitary reptile. It is important to note that the chameleon is protected by law and and one should not keep, kill or sell them.
The Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeoleo chamaeleon, Kamalejont) was brought to Malta from North Africa and introduced in a residence in a private gardens in St. Julians in the mid-1800s, but it then spread all over Malta.
This reptile inhabits trees, shrubs, low-lying vegetation and open countryside, using its four tours to grasp branches and its tail to maintain balance. It can grow up to 30cm and is normally green or brown in colour with pale markings. When threatened, it changes colour, puffs its body and opens its mouth to appear fiercer. The chameleon feeds on insects, using its protractible long tongue, which is often two times the length of its body. Its eyes can be rotated independently from each other. Thus, the chameleon, has a full 360° arc of vision, and can focus on two different objects simultaneously.
Date: Thursday 28th July 2016
Place: Dingli Cliffs, Chameleon was rescued and then released in its natural environment.
2nd July 2016 – Animal friction
An encounter between a gecko and a bat was riddled with friction, when sounds were heard coming from a circa two meter high spacing in a wall within an agricultural area at Dingli Cliffs in the evening of 2nd July.
The Moorish Gecko (Wizgha tal-Kampanja) is native of the Mediterranean region. Its flat head and transparent eyelid. The encounter was photographed in the evening, attributing to the very light colour of the gecko. Bats, which are the only flying mammals are nocturnal animals. They often roost in sheltered areas such as caves and cliffs, but also man-made structures such as walls and buildings.
22nd February 2016 – Spot the Common Starling
The Common Starling (Sturnell, Sturnus vulgaris) is a very common bird, which often spends winter in the Maltese Islands. Often, the Starlings visit the Maltese Islands in October and return back to Europe before spring.
The bird is alike to a thrush in size but has a glossy black body. White spots appear in later summer when the bird moults, giving the starling a speckled appearance. By the following summer, the feather tips wear off and the plumage is no longer spotted with white. Common starlings can often be encountered in huge flocks. It is thought that this is a defence mechanisms against birds of prey.
Starlings eat mostly insects, seeds and fruits. They are often regarded as pests since they devour sprouting crops and feed on fruit trees, whilst also causing noise nuisance due to their large roosts. However, in the Maltese Islands, the starlings do not damage fruit trees; albeit eating olives abandoned by farmers in trees.
16th November 2015 – The Swallowtail butterfly
The endemic Maltese Swallowtail butterfly, a subspecies of the European Swallowtail is only found in the Maltese Islands, locally called “Farfett tar-reġina/bużbież/fejġel”. It has an impressive wingspan of between 8 -10cm. It is identified by the bright yellow and black wings, blue band and red spots on the hind wings. Its name is attributed to the pair of protruding tails on the hind wings of this butterfly. The Maltese Swallowtail is elusive, it often flutters its wings as it feeds on flower nectar, moving from one flower to the next.
The life history of the swallowtail starts from a single egg laid on the larval host plant, most often under the leaf of a Fennel plant. The larva, which hatches from the egg feeds on the host plant for about 4 weeks, producing a pupa. The adult butterfly then lives for about 20 days, during which the female lays its eggs to complete its life cycle. The endemic Maltese Swallowtail butterfly can be seen from February to November since it produces two or three broods. Populations of the Swallowtail butterfly have remained relatively stable because the wild fennel is common in the Maltese countryside.
Date: Sunday 15th November 2015
Time: 9.30 am
Place: Dingli Cliffs, along The Cliffs Trail
14th October 2015 – The Eurasian Dotterel
Eurasian Dotterel Birwina Charadrius morinellus
Kevin Francica Kevin Francica
Observed: Mainly in Autumn, however is also seen in Winter and Spring
Description: The Eurasian Dotterel is a small long-legged wader of the plover bird family, about 20-22cm long with a wingspan of 57-64cm.
Population: The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Ecology: This species is fully migratory and travels non-stop on a broad front across Europe, staging first at a number of traditional sites. It departs from its breeding grounds from August to September, the return migration in the spring beginning in late-February or March. The species breeds from May to August in solitary well-dispersed pairs.
Behaviour: There is a sexual dimorphism in the size and plumage of the dotterel, since the female is larger and brighter than the male. This species shows a reversal of sexual roles; the female attracts a mate through its plumage displays, while the male helps incubate the eggs and tends the young chicks.
Local Habitat: Garrigue and bare arable land with sparse vegetation.
Breeding Habitat: The species breeds on flat open uplands, on mountain ridges and plateaus with sparse vegetation, and on coastal and inland Arctic tundra of moss, short grass or lichen and bare patches of rock.
Diet: Its diet consists of insects, (mainly beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and ants), spiders, snails and earthworms, as well as plant matter such as leaves, seeds, berries and flowers.
Breeding site: The nest is a shallow scrape on bare ground or in short vegetation. The species is a solitary nester but where suitable habitat is restricted it may also breed in loose groups of 2-5 pairs.
Main threats: Some of Scotland’s most popular birds are suffering a severe drop in numbers, a study has revealed:
Mon, 09/12/2013 – 16:46 — Henk Tennekes
Scientists from the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Natural Research have revealed the startling decline in bird populations in the State of UK Birds 2013 report. The mountain species dotterel (Charadrius morinellus), one of the rarest breeds in Britain – with two-thirds living in the Cairngorms – has declined by about 40 per cent in just over a decade. The results found that the estimated number of dotterels had fallen from 630 breeding males in 1999, to just 423 breeding males in 2011, continuing a longer-term decline since the first survey in 1987-88, which estimated the number of breeding males at 981. Mark Eaton, of RSPB, said: “Scotland’s Highlands provide an important home for dotterel and the species’ presence offers a good indicator of the health of our mountain landscapes. To see such a significant drop in their numbers over the past three decades is deeply concerning.
Eileen Stuart, SNH head of policy and advice, said: “The declining numbers of some birds, particularly the drop in dotterels, is obviously very worrying”. Colette Hall, a species monitoring officer with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, was concerned that the figures show the breeding ranges of waders are drastically shrinking. She said: “We’re losing much-loved species like snipe or lapwing completely from parts of lowland Britain. The list of countryside birds which are declining also includes willow tits, cuckoos, whinchats, starlings, wood warblers and yellow wagtails.
Source: The Scotsman, 9 December 2013
In northern England, a historical decline since the mid-nineteenth century has been attributed to overgrazing by sheep causing a degradation in the quality of breeding habitat, although pollution and human recreational disturbance may also be involved in preventing a recovery (Galbraith et al. 1993). The main threats for the species are loss of habitat due to alteration in mountains,-the construction of ski stations, tracks and urbanization.
Latest encounter along The Cliffs Trail: Sunday 4th October 2015, two hunters along the Cliffs Trail at Dingli Cliffs managed to take some photos of the wonderful bird, which rested for some time in a field prior to continuing its journey.
31st August 2015 – The spectacular Lobed Argiope
The Lobed Argiope at Dingli Cliffs (Source: The Cliffs Interpretation Centre)
The striking Lobed Argiope (Argiope lobata, Brimba kbira tal-widien) is the largest spider in the Maltese Islands with a striped black and yellow abdomen. The males have a body length of only 6mm, but the females’ body length reach 25mm, and its legs reach 40mm.
As the other members of the Argiope genus, the Loped Argiope decorates its large spherical web with a prominent zig-zag silk structure to immobilise and captures its prey, which it also poisons.
The Lobed Argiope is frequently found in vegetated areas, such as valleys. The photo above shows its presence at the garrigue habitat of the Dingli Cliffs.
6 June 2015 – Mating Western Whip Snakes
(product of THE CLIFFS Interpretation Centre)
The largest snake in the Maltese Islands is the Western Whip Snake, which can grow up to 1.5m. Known in Maltese as “Is-Serp Iswed”, it is the most common snake in Malta. It lives in dry places along valley sides, maquis and open rocky ground, where it is occasionally found basking on rocks or rubble walls. It usually feeds on lizards, mice, shrews, young birds, smaller snakes, frogs and large insects.
Although some people are afraid or dislike snakes, native reptiles are part of our Maltese heritage and should be safeguarded. The Western Whip Snake, like all native snakes, has been protected in Malta since 1992. One should not pursue, take, kill or keep these fascinating reptiles. According to a report compiled by MEPA in connection with the EC Habitats Directive, the population status of the western whip snake is considered to be favourable and positive trends have been predicted.
Date: Saturday 6th June 2015
Temperature: During day maximum 28 degrees Celsius
Wind: Low North East.
Place: Dingli Cliffs, along The Cliffs Interpretation Centre trail.