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International project set to re-introduce ‘lost species’ to Windmill Hill

Researchers at the University of Gibraltar will look at reintroducing reptiles, such as the ocellated lizard, back into the area of the MoD-owned Windmill Hill Flats as part of a long-running project.

The project is funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Plus Local scheme, which aims to protect unique biodiversity and improve resilience to climate change in the UK Overseas Territories.

It is being led by Professor Julia Fa, Research Fellow of the University, with participation from many experts and stakeholders, including the University of Gibraltar, the Universidad de Málaga, the University of Auckland, the Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Gibraltar’s Department of the Environment and Climate Change, the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, GONHS, ESG and Save Gibraltar Street Cats.

The project, held at the University of Gibraltar earlier this week, was officially opened by the Minister for the Environment, Dr John Cortes.

Windmill Hill Flats is a conservation area in Gibraltar and a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive.

The project aims to assess the state of key biodiversity elements and the pressures affecting them, propose management responses, and evaluate the prospects of re-establishing lost species.

Prof Fa told the Chronicle: “Our main concern is to ensure that the site which is unique in terms of what it is continues being there maybe as it is, and certainly we don’t want the area to get lost.”

“This is a prime land, and if the military were not there who knows what would happen.”

“I think it is very important for us to come up with information to make sense of what to do next.”

“You can’t manage an area by just having lists of species.”

“You know what is there but you need to know how many there are, where they are and what are the pressures and what is affecting them.”

In the past, there was a belief that nature would take care of itself, Prof Fa said, but this is sometimes “contrary to conservation”.

Prof Fa said the meetings at the university were the first steps in getting this research going.

“We brought everyone together and talked about how we are going to approach this,” Prof Fa said.

“We have a lot of work to do still, but we are getting a consensus of what we need to understand.”

“The takeaway message [from the meetings] is that we have a good group of stakeholders and experts that are willing to work together towards a common aim, and I think that is very important.”

During the 10 months of research, the information will be fed back to those involved, and eventually shared with the Darwin Plus Local project.

Raimundo Real, of the Universidad de Málaga, was in Gibraltar as a scientific advisor for the project.

He spoke to the Chronicle about the possibility of reintroducing the ocellated lizard that has gone extinct locally.

“These are complex creatures because to introduce this species you have to maintain the project for several decades to assess that it is functional,” Mr Real said.

“But there are also other targeted species to reintroduce like chameleons.”

“Gibraltar is unique, and there are some very vulnerable species like snakes that are exclusive to the Rock.”

“In any project involving changes to the ecological system it is important to ensure that these species are maintained and not at risk because of the project.”

Dr Darren Fa, Director of Academic Programmes and Research, told the Chronicle the University has been trying to get onto this project for some time and this is the first time it was accepted.

This gives the university 10-months’ worth of funding for the project which will be used “as a pilot”, as an initial setting up the project with a view to developing it into something bigger.

“The initial thinking is that we pick an area that is controllable as a high diversity, environmental area like Windmill Hill Flats, which is almost accidental as a nature reserve because it hasn’t been used by the military in so long and hasn’t become a housing estate or developed,” Dr Fa said.

“It is really interesting because it has a lot of wildlife but it also has impacts and pressures that has led to loss there, and the loss of species.”

“The area has been used for practice and now there are some habitats that have been just allowed to be there.”

Based on the outcome of this project, the team will apply for a further three years of funding.

“This is the first time in over a decade that Gibraltar has succeeded in obtaining UK funds for a research and conservation project in Gibraltar, as part of the Darwin Plus initiative aimed at Overseas Territories,” Dr Cortes said.

“The project brings together an impressive group of experts from Gibraltar and around the world, with the aim of studying and improving this gem of Gibraltar’s natural environment.”

“I am very pleased to support it, and excited to also be part of the scientific team working on it.”

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