Moqbol valley quarry endangers bird colony

The Hal Far colony was partially abandoned by Yelkouan Shearwaters after the introduction of domestic and industrial lighting

Noted researcher Benjamin Metzger insists on Malta’s obligation to safeguard the future of Shearwaters.  “When it comes to the Yelkouan Shearwater, we speak of about 10% of the global population breeding in the Maltese islands.”
Noted researcher Benjamin Metzger insists on Malta’s obligation to safeguard the future of Shearwaters. “When it comes to the Yelkouan Shearwater, we speak of about 10% of the global population breeding in the Maltese islands.”

A proposed quarry in the picturesque Wied Moqbol valley in the Hal Far and Zurrieq areas could lead an already endangered bird colony to abandon the area.

The cliffs at Hal Far host 800 pairs of Cory’s Shearwater, making this colony the largest in mainland Malta and the second largest after the Ta’ Cenc colony in Gozo. The cliffs also host a smaller population of Yelkouan Shearwaters (150 pairs). 

Both species of birds are protected by law and the Yelkouan is also red-listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s Environment and Review Tribunal is rehearing an appeal against the refusal handed down in 2005 for a quarry in agricultural land in Wied Moqbol, a valley in Zurrieq. 

Coupled with the impact of the existing quarries in the area the excavation of a brand new quarry could further continue to disturb and possibly destroy the seabird colonies.

Both species are sensitive towards light and noise pollution and further development and excavation works could put their nesting habitats at risk. 

Noted researcher Benjamin Metzger insists on Malta’s obligation to safeguard the future of Shearwaters. 

“When it comes to the Yelkouan Shearwater, we speak of about 10% of the global population breeding in the Maltese islands,” he points out.

“Light and noise pollution put the colonies at risk and the birds might abandon the area,” according to Dr Metzger, Project Manager of EU-Life Arcipelagu Garnija programme. He goes on to warn that young shearwaters get disoriented by light and get grounded inland instead of flying out to sea.

Metzger has spent more than four years in Malta working to protect Maltese seabird species: the Yelkouan Shearwaters (Garnija), Scopoli’s Shearwaters (Ciefa) and Mediterranean Storm petrels (Kangu ta’ Filfla).

Metzger has previously worked with seabirds on research vessels in the Baltic and the North Sea and had also volunteered at La Palma island in the Canaries, where a very small population of Manx Shearwaters is left.

There have been documented cases where even streetlights have been sufficient to cause partial abandonment of nesting colonies in Malta.

For example the Hal Far colony (West of Wied Ix-Xaqqa to Wied Moqbol Cliffs) was partially abandoned by Yelkouan Shearwaters after the introduction of domestic and industrial lighting. 

The birds abandoned a section of their colony along the cliffs affected by the lights, but remained on the unaffected side behind the headland, which was shielded from light pollution. 

Even minor light sources such as car headlights and torches have been noted to disturb the birds while they are at sea or in flight and this can result in Yelkouan Shearwaters behaving abnormally, and remaining away from breeding crevices. 

In December 2014, the MEPA appeals tribunal had revoked a previous decision not to issue a permit for a quarry in the picturesque Wied Moqbol valley – handed down by MEPA in 2005 and by a different appeals board four years later in 2009. 

The Tribunal was subsequently rebuked by Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti for not sticking to its role, that of enforcing policies, and was ordered to hear the case again. The original application first turned down in 2005, was for the relocation of a quarry from Hagar Qim to Wied Moqbol.

The site at Wied Moqbol is designated by the South Malta Local Plan as an agricultural area but two older quarries are already operating in the area.

The policy clearly states: “MEPA will continue to protect agricultural land from all types of inappropriate development. Within agricultural areas, as indicated on the relevant Environmental Constraints Maps, only buildings, structures and uses essential to the needs of agriculture will be permitted”.

Wied Moqbol is also designated as a Special Area of Conservation of International Importance under the Natura 2000 programme, in view of the importance of the species as well as archaeological remains found there.

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