Wied il-Luq (Valley of Poplars) is one of the tributary valleys feeding the Wied il-Kbir system, which is the largest valley system in Malta. Wied il-Luq now carries water only during the wet season, draining runoff from higher ground and land surrounding its course. The Wied il-Luq riparian woodland and intermittent stream system has been extensively modified over the past 200 years, through the installation of reinforced dry-stone and ashlar walls, game enclosures, irrigation systems, fountains and fish tanks, as well as agricultural, afforestation and landscaping works.
Because of these works, the valley transformed into an artificial channel along most of its course through the now protected Buskett-Girgenti Natura 2000 site. Over time sections of the dry-stone retaining walls have collapsed and other parts damaged (with visible breaches) due to erosion, overexploitation and poor upkeep. Moreover, invasive alien plant species introduced many years ago have proliferated covering large areas of the valley including previously managed agricultural plots as well as the highly sensitive valley bed.
The LIFE SAVING BUSKETT project focused on implementing measures to further protect and restore the watercourse and valley slopes of Wied il-Luq and Wied il-Buskett (Buskett Valley) situated within the larger Buskett-Girgenti Natura 2000 site. Habitat and architectural restoration works as well as site maintenance supported and enhanced the following specific Annex I-listed priority habitats: Arborescent matorral with Laurus nobilis; Salix alba and Populus alba galleries; Olea and Ceratonia forests; Quercus ilex and Quercus rotundifolia forests; and Mediterranean pine forests with endemic Mesogean pines.
The project aimed to achieve its goal through: a) the repair/restoration/rebuilding of retaining walls that define the watercourse and b) the reduction of the run-off of soil and debris from the valley, which cause sedimentation in, and occlusion of, the watercourse. It also aimed to remove invasive alien species that compete with native species in the target habitats, and plant trees characteristic of the habitats.
The LIFE SAVING BUSKETT project made a significant contribution to protecting the watercourse and its banks in the Buskett-Girgenti Natura 2000 site in Malta, which is classified as both a SAC and SPA. The restoration work benefits several Annex 1-listed habitats of the Habitats Directive, and supports the areas status as an ecologically-important bird sanctuary and national monument protected by the Cultural Heritage Act.
The river Wied il-Luq (Valley of Poplars) has been extensively modified over the past 200 years, but the reinforced dry-stone and ashlar walls of the riverbank are now collapsing. The main project success was the works performed on the retaining walls that define the watercourse, with nearly 2 000 m of riverbank stone walls restored or rebuilt, and on the arched buttresses over the watercourse, with 49 arched buttresses rebuilt. Silt and boulders were removed from the watercourse over a length of 1 200 m. The wall restoration consequently enabled the safeguarding of nearly 3 000 m2 of the habitat Arborescent matorral with Laurus nobilis and over 1.2 ha of the habitat Salix alba and Populus alba galleries.
The project implemented intensive works to remove invasive alien species, with over 24 ha of the target area cleared of invasive species, such as Ailanthus altissima, Vitis spp., Agave spp. and Ricinus communis, that compete with native species. After this clearance work, the project planted 3 300 seedlings of local tree species characteristic of the targeted habitats.
The project team conducted awareness-raising activities, which reached over 13 600 visitors to the Buskett area, held 34 meetings with local stakeholders, and produced a film on the project. Moreover, in the target area more than 50 noticeboards were installed to explain the riverbank wall vulnerability and the importance of the habitats and species found in the Natura 2000 site. Several other environmental benefits arisefrom the riverbank restoration work. The preservation of the rubble walls enhances an important habitat for local flora and fauna; protecting existing trees and improving the quality of the watercourse via soil stabilisation measures leads to decreased soil erosion; removing alien plant species benefits endemic species; and the seedling transplantations support populations of other local species. In the long term, the habitat restoration and maintenance of the most important protected woodland of Malta can contribute to the process of carbon sequestration and essential habitat functions, including the conservation of biological and genetic diversity.
Key socio-economic benefits arise from the project due to the protection of the ecosystem, the ecosystem services it provides (e.g. clean air, water and soil; water regulation/supply; biological control; and general health), and the enhanced opportunities for educational and recreational activities, tourism, and aesthetic experiences. The project upgraded footpaths for visitors, which also helps them to avoid trampling particularly sensitive areas of vegetation. Guided walks continue to be undertaken by the projects educator, who is a full-time employee of PARKS, assisted by project support staff responsible for continuing these educational services after the end of the project. Boosting tourism could bring wider economic benefits to the local population.
In addition to the Habitats and Birds Directives, the project was also relevant to EU Regulation 1143/2014 on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species; the woodland management and non-native plant control policy of the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA); and the national Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED). The project demonstrated how restoration and improvement of a Natura 2000 site can be undertaken in Malta, so providing a leading example for other projects of this type.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).