Tucked among buildings almost on all sides, Tal-Wej is perfect for a Sunday morning or afternoon stroll. Just a few blocks from Mosta’s old urban core, Tal-Wej is nestled among new neighbourhoods and a hardstone quarry, within walking distance from the nearest bus stop.
Despite constant pressure from building speculation, this large pocket of land survives as one of Malta’s top protected sites.
Tal-Wej is a natural and archeaological gem, the kind of place you’d want to forge your child’s memories of Malta.
Tal-Wej has recently been designated a Natura 2000 site, a place of national and international natural importance. But why has it earned this accolade?
Nature, history and culture meet on this area of flat land about the size of 40 football fields. The area is a mosaic of exposed rock, abandoned and active fields and archaeological remains, packing an all-round heritage trail in one family outing.
Step onto one of the many footpaths that criss-cross the site and start your walk bordered by seasonal wild plants. You could animate your walk with a little imagination and “see” wild flower heads bobbing or waving at you as you pass.
This little game is perfect for the spindly stalks of the perennial wall-rocket that cause the yellow flowers to bounce at the slightest breeze. Turning a rocky footpath into an avenue of waving admirers are the red campions with their Italian pink petals, contrasting with crowds of sweet alison scenting the air as you walk past.
Give your nature games a scientific slant and carry a flower field guide, such as Wild Flowers of the Maltese Islands by Edwin Lanfranco and Guido Bonett.
December to April are a great time to get your child acquainted with the floral beauties of places like Tal-Wej, not least the uncommon crown anemone. If you do manage to find this striking beauty, you could spark your child’s interest in Greek mythology: share the story of how the anemone got its name from the story that the flower only blooms in the wind, since Anemone was the daughter of the winds.
Before you make your way to this oasis of nature, get your ears tuned to one of the most common winter bird sounds you will hear around abandoned fields: the sweet, repetitive high-pitched notes of the meadow pipit.
The bird’s brownish green plumage make it near-impossible to spot in a field of stones, soil and grass shadows. Listen for its call as it takes off in alarm and watch it land again at a safe distance to become earth and resume its forage for minibeasts.
Another bird sound to pick up before visiting Tal-Wej is the characteristic, repeated “sw-chak” of the stonechat. Small but easy to pick out, the stonechat often perches atop tall flower stalks from where it surveys its surroundings for flies and other winged prey. Watch it flutter off, chase its victim and circle back to the same stalk.
Delicate-looking fairy shrimps share the pools with a variety of other creatures. Photo: Victor Falzon
The best time to visit Tal-Wej is after a period of heavy rains. This is when the natural rock pools that form in the landscape’s exposed rock depressions fill up and trigger the birth of thousands of living things whose eggs or seeds have lain dormant in the caked mud. Visiting Tal-Wej over a couple of months is the perfect opportunity for you and your child to follow the life cycles of some of the wonderful wildlife that gives the area its protected status.
Among these is a living fossil: the tadpole shrimp, a curious creature whose form hasn’t changed since it first appeared on earth 250 million years ago. These amazing animals don’t hatch every year, so dance a jig of joy if you do spot their tadpole-like forms stirring up the mud as they search for food. Hone your child’s visual acuity into telling the tadpole shrimps from actual frog tadpoles that also inhabit the larger pools.
As you scour rock pools for life, remind your child how this resilient life form has defied the scorching summer heat, encased in a tough shell in millimetres of dry soil, trod, run and sometimes driven over by human activity. Even the diaphanous and fragile-looking fairy shrimp can pass endurance tests that leave humans at the starting block.
The rare, ancient tadpole shrimp has a short life cycle in the seasonal rock pools. Photo: Desirée Falzon
Forming the base of food chain rock pool are rare and endemic (only found in Malta) water plants. During the short wet months, Tal-Wej is one of the few places where you can enjoy freshwater buttercups, with their white and yellow palette and profuse blooms stretching across the pool.
The freshwater crowfoot produces a profusion of blooms. Photo: Victor Falzon
Continue your walk through time, from ancient prehistory in the rock pools to more recent prehistory in the cart ruts and rock-cut tombs that reveal the importance of Tal-Wej through the millennia.
Continue to feed your child’s imagination as you envisage how and why our ancestors cut the rock into the seven pairs of cart ruts found at Tal-Wej. Peer down into the Bronze Age tombs and imagine life on this sacred burial ground thousands of years ago.
Bronze Age rock-cut tombs. Photo: Victor Falzon
Make the most of Tal-Wej’s unexpected natural and cultural richness that has withstood the pressures of human selfishness to build over, pump dry, or trap and kill its wildlife. Your child’s bond with Tal-Wej may well be the key to safeguarding this secret garden of our heritage.
Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.
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