The production of salt has been a human activity since time immemorial. Long before the development of an array of food preservatives and the invention of refrigeration, salt was the only natural and widely available way of preserving food beyond immediate consumption.
Malta does not have any salt mines and it is to the sea – the raw material for salt production – that the islanders have always turned to for its production. There are about forty sites around the islands’ shores where sets of salt pans exist. These are mostly hewn out of the living rock where the gradient allows for the retention of sea water and its eventual drying up – leaving the precious crystals behind. Salt pans are found mainly around Marsaskala and Delimara in the south of Malta while in Gozo there is a very large stretch of them along the northern coast west of Marsalforn.
While mostly a cottage industry, the Knights of Saint John took salt production to a new, almost industrial, level. They developed an area of marshland at the ancient port of Burmarrad and constructed an artificial clay island to create the Salina Salt Pans – by far the islands’ largest and the only completely man-made ones. In its heyday, Salina was capable of producing some 4,000 tons of coarse salt every year. Time and cheap imported table salt eventually led to the decline of most salt production in the Maltese islands while Salina itself suffered from long years of neglect. Severe storm damage also resulted in the destruction of its retaining walls and led to the pans being completely submerged under water and silt for a number of years.
A new lease of life was extended to Salina in 2011 when a €7 million restoration and regeneration project kicked off. This saw the cleaning of the canals round the salt pans and the complete restoration of the timber huts originally built by the British – one of which now serves as a visitor centre – giving an overview of the history of salt with particular emphasis on salt production methods in Malta.
But Salina is also an important bird habitat with various resident and visiting species attracted by the shallow waters and marshland. Resident species include Sardinian Warblers, Cetti's Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas and Spanish sparrows, while Reed Warblers and Moorhens breed here regularly. The Maltese dry summer attracts waders to the area including Ringed Plovers, Sandpipers, Little Stints, Redshanks, Kingfishers, and Yellow Wagtails among others. The spring and autumn migrations also see a good number of species in the area with herons and hoopoes among the prominent species. Salina is also the likely target of flamingos when these – sometimes infrequently - visit the island.
Given the importance of the site for avian wildlife, it is no surprise that Birdlife Malta has been entrusted with managing the Salina Salt Pans, which are now open every day and provide an added attraction in close proximity to the resorts of Qawra and Bugibba.
The Salina Salt Pans Malta are located on the Coast Road some half a kilometre away from Qawra. Entrance is free of charge.