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Written by Annalise Falzon

The sand dune is one of the rarest and most threatened habitats in Malta. This means that most of its inhabitants automatically end up on the endangered list. Coastal sand dunes develop through the interaction of sandy beaches, wind, waves and erosion processes. Once the first pioneer plants establish themselves, the conditions start becoming more favourable for a succession of plants which will eventually establish the dune, which in turn will also attract particular fauna. In our islands, the Posidonia (Alka) banquettes can also be a huge asset to sand dunes by providing nutrients and protection from waves, but only if allowed in situ. 

With the Maltese Islands having less than 2.5% of the coast made up by sandy beaches (nevermind the misleading adverts for tourists), it follows that sand dunes are a very, very restricted habitat. The problematic issue is that these rare sandy shores are the most highly sought areas by locals and visitors alike – this inevitably translates into massive pressures exerted on the least patch of sand. 

The only sizeable pocket beach in Comino is found at Il-Qala ta’ Santa Marija and lies between two headlands of hard limestone. Although small, and degraded by years of human disturbance, the bay still supports remnants of sand dunes which back the small beach, and which in turn are backed by remnants of a saline marshland – another extremely rare habitat (currently being restored).

This habitat is one of the 11 protected habitats present on Comino which contributed to the island becoming part of the Natura 2000 network. Each habitat is assigned a code and title, in this case: 2210 – Crucianellion maritimae fixed beach dunes. It is the habitat which occupies the smallest area of all, is highly fragmented and degraded, and requires urgent restorative interventions.   

The typical flora and fauna of sand dunes consist of very highly adapted and specialised species of this shifting habitat are known as psammophiles: they thrive in sandy areas and thus are often restricted to just this rare habitat and nowhere else – another aspect which highlights their vulnerability.  

The Sea Daffodil (Pankrazju), Sea Knotgrass (Lewża tal-Baħar), Sea Rocket (Kromb il-Baħar) – all names which leave no doubt as to their coastal habitat preference! 

Towards the back of the dune, the larger plants help create shade and more stability with their roots. The Tamarisk tree (Bruka) is the only shade and shelter provider in the area – a highly resilient tree that can withstand extremely high levels of salinity. A few shrubs of the Chaste Tree (Bżar tal-Patrijiet) can also be encountered here. When it blooms in early summer, with its multitude of lilac flowers, it is a hive of activity as all sorts of pollinator species converge on it.