Among the many lifelong gifts my parents gave me is undoubtedly a love of nature. Having a garden big enough to contain my imagination and nature curiosity fertilised this passion. The garden was my special place where I acted out childhood fantasies among a world of plants and animals that grew alongside me.
Combating nature deficit
Growing up in a house with a garden is a luxury today, and one that most parents cannot offer their children. But skimping on nature’s medicine is not advisable to any parent who wishes to spare their child from the costs of our alienation from nature.
These costs were packaged into the phrase “nature deficit disorder” by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, where he described the negative effects of children’s lack of contact with nature on their mental and physical well-being.
How then, can we put nature into our children’s lives?
Luckily, as our gardens inexorably give way to the apartment phenomenon, European mechanisms have stepped in to save our islands’ top nature spots.
Malta has 39 nature hotspots, known as Natura 2000 sites. Adopt any one of these as your child’s go-to nature haunt (find sites and maps here https://shorturl.at/iMOY7) and make trips there as regularly as you can.
One excellent place for a long-term relationship with nature is a forest. While Buskett is arguably the best-known of our woodlands, a much younger one was born around the year 2000, as BirdLife Malta’s gift to the millennium.
The changes in a young woodland are more dramatic and they make perfect candidates for marking the passing of the years. Your child might even share their memories of once-were saplings with their own children!
Foresta 2000 lies within the Natura 2000 site known as l-Inħawi tal-Għadira. Started by a small band of BirdLife volunteers in 1998, the woodland spans part of the “tail” of Malta, stretching across Marfa ridge. Typical of Mediterranean forest, Foresta 2000 contains a mosaic of different species but also includes different habitats and open spaces.
After stepping through the south gate near the green caravans, the most frequent tree you will encounter is the Aleppo pine. Allow your child to appreciate nature’s slow rhythms through the pinecone’s three-year journey before it matures to release its wing-borne seeds.
Notice thick, dark green lentisk shrubs growing among the pines. Full of red berries in autumn and winter, these bushes feed the hundreds of starlings, as well as the blackcaps, robins, Sardinian warblers, and the many migrant birds that stay the winter at Foresta 2000.
Listen for different bird calls and look overhead for flocks of starlings, soon to leave our islands to return to their breeding grounds in the north. You can hear these garrulous birds chatter non-stop as they descend on the olive trees in Foresta 2000’s farmland area.
On sunny days, you may come across a chameleon treading its way carefully to the higher branches of the pines towards a sun-warming spot. With 23,000 planted trees and shrubs, Foresta 2000 is not an easy place to chance upon a camouflaged chameleon.
Lentisk shrubs spread their branches wide, providing shelter for woodland wildlife. Photo: Desirée Falzon
Lentisk berries ripen in autumn, in time for wintering birds at the forest to gorge on. Photo: Victor Falzon
Visit the woodland at different times of the year and trace the seasons. Keep your eyes to the ground during rainy winters to spot leathery caps of pine boletes pushing through the mat of pine needles carpeting the forest floor. Pat the branches of the pine trees in spring and release clouds of pollen while you take in the subtle, heady scent of pine oils. Enjoy the summer quiet of the woodland on summer evenings as you stroll through the north end towards the sea at Qammieħ.
Pine boletes push their spore-filled caps through the leaf litter. Photo: Desirée Falzon
As you climb uphill, draw your child’s attention to the different characters in a woodland. A Mediterranean woodland is a happy, well-lit place full of tall, low and medium shrubs, as well as trees. It is quite unlike the shadowy Scandinavian Forest with its miles of conifers that conjure up images of gnomes and trolls.
One of the shrub characters at Foresta 2000 is the wolfbane, with its bright green, slightly fleshy leaves. Look for its small but peculiar flowers in spring and make sure not to misss their perfume. In summer feel the satiny smoothness of the profusion of hairs inside the seed pod that gives the shrub its Maltese name: siġra tal-ħarir.
A rosemary in full bloom provides nectar for foraging honeybees. Photo: Desirée Falzon
The shrubby stretches of rosemary and great sage are at their most spectacular in spring, when purple blooms contrast with golden petals. Olive-leaved germander, with its nectar-filled blue flowers has the headstart over the other shrubs, having been in bloom since late winter.
Follow these shrubs through their cycles and notice how Mediterranean plants boldly flaunt their adaptations to our summer heat, often shedding their leaves and remaining dormant until the first rains.
None are more spectacular than the endemic Maltese spurge. This pretty shrub grows in compact semi-circles that brim with bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers in spring. Once the seeds are formed the leaves drop off, leaving an attractive and rather artistic twiggy hemisphere to survive the summer.
The great sage displays a profusion of scented flowers throughout spring. Photo: Desirée Falzon
Emerge from the pine grove to the steppe habitat covering the clay slope at Foresta 2000. This sprawling stretch of esparto grass and wild plants goes through dramatic changes from a winter coat of sweet-smelling narcissus to a crimson carpet of sulla in spring.
Children tend to focus on detail, while adults lose themselves in scenery. Slip into your child’s mode as you pass through Foresta’s steppe slope: notice the pink-tinted, hair-like strands of the esparto grass and watch out for slant-faced grasshoppers taking short flights between bushes. Peer into the banks of sulla and look out for golden grass eggar caterpillars.
A slant-faced grasshopper lies in perfect camouflage against dry sticks and Foresta 2000’s clayey soil. Photo: Victor Falzon
A zitting cisticola carries a cricket to its young in the nest on the left. Photo: Joe Sultana
High overhead, male zitting cisticolas mark out their territory with thin “zip-zip-zip” cries as their females tend their nests below. Both parents will catch grasshoppers, dragonflies and other insects and disappear with them into their bottle-shaped nests.
The electric purple of the cardoon flowers easily steals the highlight in May. The flowers attract a wide range of different wasps, bees, and fruit flies, being virtually the only sources of pollen and nectar at this time.
During spring migration, watch flocks of swallows swooping over treetops and steppe, catching insects. If you hear a cuckoo or a hoopoe calling, stop and listen – nothing in our urbanised lives compares with the haunting beauty of these birds.
Summer highlight: Cardoon flowers’ electric purple attracts pollinators from far and wide. Photo: Desirée Falzon
Cherish the memory
Nothing is wasted in a forest. Anything that falls to the ground becomes part of the great recycling machine that makes the forest soil richer, feeding all the food chain. Leaves, logs and spent pinecones can all be animal homes before turning into compost.
Lead your child into safeguarding the woodland’s future by talking about “tomorrow” and the need to let things you find in nature follow their natural cycles. Respect the forest and take only memories back home.
To make the most of your walk, once you’re back home compare your favourite Foresta 2000 moments. This little trick extends the pleasure of your woodland time by revisiting the experience, but also carries the hidden message that nature experiences are never to be taken for granted.
Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.
All the articles in this series are available here. For more environment-related articles, follow this link.
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