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Selmunett under siege again!

Arnold Sciberras, Jeffrey Sciberras and Luca Pisani

Nature Trust (Malta)
The rats are back! And this time with a vengeance. This story has being going on since the late
90`s, but now its gotten worse. The Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) is an invasive creature and if
left unchecked it may harm local species and delicate ecosystems. One such ecosystem is that of
Selmunett Island, better known amongst locals as St Paul`s Island. The island, including its
biodiversity, is scheduled as a Special Area of Conservation - Candidate Site of International
Importance via Government Notice 112 of 2007, as declared through the provisions of the Flora,
Fauna and Natural Habitats Regulations of 2006 (Legal Notice 311 of 2006). Selmunett Island
(St Paul Island) was designated as a Nature Reserve via LN 25 of 1993. Il-Gira ta' San Pawl /
Selmunett has also been declared as a Specially Protected Area under the SPA Protocol
(Barcelona Convention) since 1986. However, this jewel of an island, so rich in archaeological
and natural history, has been left in a disastrous state. One may ask who is responsible. We hate
pointing fingers to the authority, but lets face it, one or the other has to take a step forward. We
as public are also to blame because if it is something that is happening at our doorstep,we
quickly go complaining but when it is of a national and in this case even an international level
we just shut one eye and let things slide. Since the ecological state of the island has reached a
critical level further degradation must be stopped immediately.

Our surveys on this island date back to the late 90`s, when the island already had its fair share of
rodents, but their existence had not yet taken its toll. However as history has taught us, if these
creatures are left unchecked then this island and other similar sites are doomed. The rats
succeeded in driving the lizard endemic to Selmunett (Podarcis filfolensis subsp. kieselbachi) to
extinction, and now threaten other wildlife. Efforts from both naturalists and the respective
authority had managed to halt the destruction of this species through bait control. Yet now, what
were once rodent traps have become little more than accumulated rubbish, and due to a lack of
maintenance, the rats have once again taken over, evidently destroying anything in their path. All
the work done to control these invaders has been in vain. The French Daffodil (Narcissus tazetta)
having been a very common species on the island, as well as one of particular interest (since it
was observed by the authors to flower slightly before those of the mainland) lately seems to be
decreasing in numbers. The extensive digging habit of the rodents, clearly shown by the large
amount of holes that cover the island, is a great hint to the fact that they dig up and gnaw on the
underground bulbs and roots of the French Daffodil and other herbaceous species. After the
attempts of rodent eradication, some species such as the Turkish and Moorish geckos
(Hemidactylus turcicus & Tarentola mauritanica) were augmenting back, but ultimately they
also started to fall prey to the rats once again. Besides numerous burrowed holes, their faeces is
everywhere, and their sightings have increased so drastically that even the un-trained eye can
easily spot these creatures, and one must watch out who crosses the footpaths first!

To make things worse, rats are not only the ecological aliens on the island. Attempts to eradicate
the foreign cactus Opuntia stricta, a smaller relative of the Prickly Pear (Opunita ficus-indica),
have also proven to be a waste of time, since the uprooted stems of Opuntia stricta where not
removed from the island, but left on the ground. With such a great tendency for the majority of
succulents to root themselves easily, the left-overs formed plants of their own, and ironically,
this aided and not diminished their numbers on the island. Like all succulents, Opuntia stricta
can smother any native species of plant. Another alien succulent species left unchecked on the
island is the American Agave (Agave americana), which has already conquered its own patch of
ground. This is a massive species not to be reckoned with, and if left to its own devices, the
island will end up with a similar fate to Baar i-agaq. Another note, this time from a
historical point of view, is that the farmhouse which symbolises human existence on the island is
in great need of restoration, as in the last decade it has almost completely fallen apart. This
structure, if properly restored, could well be used as an observation centre on the island and its

There may be still some hope of saving the island, but words alone are not enough. If we truly
want the island to remain a Special Area of Conservation - Candidate Site of International
Importance, then lets take action before its too late!

To be cited as:
SCIBERRAS, A., SCIBERRAS, J . & Pisani, L. (2012) Selmunett under siege again! The
Malta Independent, December 10
: 4.