FKNK (the Federation for Hunting, Trapping and Conservation) say the Miżieb and Aħrax deal will change nothing, just formalising what has been happening for decades. However, the history of these natural northern areas and the origin of the trees populating it goes back over half a century.
In the 50s, the area was mostly garigue, with shrubs dotting the land.
However, a donation of about 10,000 Aleppo pines, olive trees and junipers by the Israeli government to the Maltese people led to an afforestation project to go ahead in an area known as il-Miżieb and the nearby Aħrax in Mellieħa.
In the Miżieb garigue, dynamite was brought in to create cracks in the bedrock for the trees to be planted. This occured under Dom Mintoff’s government.
The area around Miżieb was still mostly garigue, meaning a low, shrub-filled habitat typical for the Mediterranean.
The area wasn’t well-known as a hunting area, though some hunters may have walked through the region, especially as more trees appeared.
Both at the beginning and at the end of the 1970s, a major afforestation project was launched by the Department of Agriculture. More trees were planted in the Miżieb area in collaboration with a number of local NGOs including Men of the Trees, 4Ts, SSCN (which would become Nature Trust) and the Malta Ornithological Society (which would become BirdLife Malta).
The appearance of more trees led to the area becoming affiliated with countryside walks, and not hunting, though more hunters began appearing here.
In 1983, then Agriculture Minister Debono Grech said about three million trees had been planted since 1972, with Greece, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia and Libya having donated the trees. The trees were planted everywhere from Miżieb to Manikata, Dwejra, Delimara, Mġarr (Gozo) among other locations.
In 1984, more reports of vandalism in the area began to appear, with hundreds of Aleppo pines and olive trees being burned down in August, 1984, alone. The fire was reported by members of the Malta Ornithological Society.
Environmentalists said it was high time the government appoint wardens to take care of the area.
Just a few months later, in October 1984, volunteers found around 300 trees that they had been planted uprooted as local reports said that “vandals are keeping a close watch on the site at il-Miżieb”.
In 1986, Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici met with FKNK representatives to discuss turning Miżieb into a “game-hunting reserve” on the condition that hunters are not given another site to hunt in.
Until today, this 1986 agreement has been used to justify the continued access for hunters by the FKNK. Lovin Malta has requested a copy of this agreement from the Lands Authority, Parliamentary Secretary for Lands and the Environment Ministry.
Shortly after this, environmentalists called for authorities to withdraw the deal, citing hunters abuses in the area.
Saviour Balzan, then of the MOS, said at the time: “when one considered that game-hunting had been prohibited at Miżieb since it formed part of an afforestation project, it was difficult to understand how, suddenly, game-hunting and trapping were not only accepted but were also being encouraged.”
At this time, invasive species such as acacias and eucalyptus were also being planted in the area, with informal maintenance being undertaken by hunters.
This is also the decade when former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had famously told hunters: “what’s on the Maltese land is ours, what’s in the Maltese seas is ours, and what’s in the Maltese air is ours.”
Hunters gradually took further control of the area, planting more trees to attract more birds to the burgeoning woodlands.
The place was generally well-maintained and free from litter – however, evidence of hunting activity became more common, with cartridge shells found along the pathways as well as hunting hides springing up throughout the 2km woodlands.
People began avoiding the area during the early morning hours as more hunters would hunt there during the spring and autumn hunting seasons.
Hunters continued to utilise the land for hunting while hosting regular clean-ups of the area. Picnickers also used the area, with camping becoming more popular in Aħrax, though people would complain of being woken up in the camps by the sounds of shots early in the morning.
However, vandalism still occurred regularly through targeted destruction of trees, while hunters complained of campers and picnickers leaving their litter behind or starting open fires
In 2003, the Foresta 2000 project was set up between the Aħrax and Miżieb area. A reforestation and habitat restoration project co-managed by BirdLife Malta, Din l-Art Ħelwa and PARK, it was the target of constant vandalism soon after it opened.
In September 2004, 100 tree were uprooted and damaged, while in 2006 three separate fire and arson attacks occurred there between July and September.
In May 2007, another 3,000 trees were cut down overnight, while in April 2010, three hunters were convicted of damaging 104 trees. On appeal, they were fined €12,229.35.
In 2009, a BirdLife ranger was shot in the head for the second time in two years; Foresta 2000 ranger Ray Vella had been targeted by a gun-wilding agressor while managing the site at around 6am
Just last year, in 2019, 4,600 trees were destroyed in a fire that roared through Miżieb, with officials at the time saying they aren’t sure what led to the fire in the first place, before blaming it on litter.
A contract giving the FKNK rights over the management and upkeep of the two woodlands was signed in a secret meeting presided over by Transport Minister Ian Borg, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri and Parliamentary Secretary for Lands Chris Agius.
The deal will forbid public access during specific times of day during the spring and autumn hunting seasons. However, FKNK will be obliged to set up picnic areas for the general public. Over 27,000 people signed a petition calling for the land to remain public, while the Nationalist Party has denounced the government’s “arrogance” in signing the deal before it could get scrutinised.
However, FKNK have pledged to ensure that the woodlands will now be kept at a higher standard than ever before
Lovin Malta spoke to Lucas Micallef, the PRO of the FKNK, as well as Mark Sultana, the CEO of BirdLife, in two separate interviews which you can watch below.
BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana discusses the Miżieb deal on Lovin Daily.