[Written by Mark Day, Head of Partner Development Unit - Europe, Middle East and Central Asia - and it's his FIRST blog!]
It was not even 10 o'clock and the back of my neck was toasting in the intense sun already on the short walk from the car. Turning the corner away from the sea, I walked down the road, skirting an imposing 2 metre plus high chain link fence topped with two rusty barbed wire strands until I came to a tall, heavy steel gate closed with a thumb-thickness of chain and an industrial padlock. A lean tanned man with a grey polo shirt, long shorts, work boots and dark glasses approached me silently from the other side of the fence. "Good Morning" he said suddenly with a winning smile "it’s great to meet you!" Deftly removing the lock and swinging the gate inwards in a single move "Come on in - Welcome to Is Simar Nature Reserve" said Charles Coleiro, Site Manager of 12 years standing, and proud Maltese conservationist. My neck immediately appreciated the shade of the fine-leaved Tamarisk tree, as my eyes adjusted to the unfamiliar shade, as I entered Malta's Is Simar Nature Reserve for the very first time. Equally quickly, the oily smell of hot tarmac was replaced by a cocktail of aromatic Mediterranean plants - as if I had opened a cupboard filled with culinary herbs. Is Simar is tiny. Only 3 hectares (7 acres) in size, it is one of the two nature reserves that BirdLife Malta run with 2 staff seconded from the Government of Malta, including Charles. The Government also provides core funds for management, supplemented by funds raised by BirdLife Malta.
It quickly became clear that this tiny rectangular block of space for nature is completely hemmed in: On two sides by ever busy roads, and the other two by farmers' uniformly ploughed fields. Around the entire perimeter, the fences stand over 2m high. Originally, the high fence that encircles the Reserve was installed to keep out less welcome visitors, the hunters, who have broken in historically looking for their quarry. "Nowadays, it is to equally important to help control vandalism, or prevent against accidental fires" said Charles.Nestling in a small bay on Malta’s east coast, Is Simar is all that remains of an extensive coastal wetland that one spanned the width of the shallow valley and absorbed the run off of rain from the rocky hills. Canalised and drained for agriculture when the Maltese islands were under British rule, an original management plan from 1992 resulted in the site being engineered with excavators to restore some of the original features of the site - encouraging nature back one species at a time. We sat together in the first hide over looking the patches of reeds, open water and the central island with a mature Tamarisk and fruiting bushes. Charles was delighted by being able to point out rapidly the recent breeding successes of the Common Coot, Moorhen, Reed warbler and Little Grebe within the last 5 years, and took great pride in showing me the new interpretation panels - One in honour of the breeding of each species. This achievement is not to be underestimated given the hunting pressures on the Maltese islands.
Coot and chicks at Is Simar this year
Then from the initial hide he was visibly thrilled to see one of Malta's real rarities, a female mallard! Ducks get some of the worst attention of the hunters, so find very little space to breathe, and no longer breed in the Maltese Islands, so for Malta in general and Charles in particular, this was genuinely a special sighting.Leaving the hide, we walked together around the shady boundary trail, and he pointed out the numerous small panels the explain about the numerous species of plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and the single species of frog that reached this remote Mediterranean archipelago, between Italy, Tunisia and Libya, and now seek refuge from the onslaught of concrete.
The whine of traffic was replaced by slow determined buzzing – emanating from the metallic blue-black wings of the jet black (huge) bumble bees drawn magnetically to the wild plants of the Reserve, hovering like unstealthy helicopters before manoeuvring to land clumsily on the flowers of tall wild fennel, bear's breeches(!) and chaste trees. With a densely packed island of over 400,000 people, many live in apartment blocks and are almost totally disconnected from nature as a result – apart from on the Discovery Channel. Charles explained that he and BirdLife Malta's resident field teacher Jason Aloisio host schools groups every week at Is Simar during term-time.
Up to 100 children a week visit with their teachers and in this tiny oasis of nature to learn about their natural heritage - and are often shocked to discover for themselves that there is any wildlife on the islands at all.
Putting his face close to the boundary fence and looking through to the ploughed agricultural land bleached out by the aggressive sun without a single spot of shade, Charles told me that water extraction for vegetables in these fields is slowly salinating the land around the Reserve, but explained that this poses no threat to the Reserve with its salt-tolerant Tamarisk and reeds. With the quiet determination of a stoic, he concluded "One day the salt will cause these fields to fail, and we will be ready to expand this Reserve and home much more wildlife, and attract many more schoolchildren and tourists." Many of our BirdLife Partners identify, propose and argue for protecting special places just like this, but BirdLife Malta takes it one stage further and has been managing this site for 20 years. Reluctantly leaving Is Simar and saying goodbye to Charles, it was clear that in some cases, like Malta, our combined efforts for saving nature really are achieved just 1 person, 1 bee, 1 bird, 1 day, and 1 acre at a time. www.birdlifemalta.org