Friday, 23 April 2010

Hunting in Malta

We spent a nice evening at a viewpoint near Mtahleb on our third day at the Springwatch camp. We were stationed on a narrow road which descended into a very scenic valley. Few birds were about. No hunting activity was observed either, but a couple of pickups came by and slowed down as they went past, their occupants giving us the long, hard and very unfriendly stare that we'd already become used to.

The next morning we returned to the same viewpoint to find this message on the wall we'd sat on the evening before. The stuff in the foreground is assorted bits of vegetables and animals - in the bottom right is a swastika. This cowardly attempt at intimidation is just one of the signs of how badly rattled the hunters are by the presence of BirdLife Malta's conservation teams in the countryside. On other occasions, we had guys with sticks come up and shout at us, were forced to back into a wall by a hunter in a Landrover, and were shouted and sworn at every day. Other incidents that happened to some of the other teams included tyres being slashed, a windscreen shot out, stone-throwing and actual physical assault.

We filmed this chap hunting by the sea on our last afternoon trip. I've blurred his face just in case. The police took more than an hour to arrive, by which time he'd scarpered (they did find his sweater though).

What's going on with these guys? They already have the most generous legal hunting situation in Europe, both in terms of number of quarry species and the length of the open season. Spring hunting for Quail and Turtle Dove was legal for a short season until 2008, and a very short season has been reopened this year. (This is bad news for the two species concerned, both of which are in serious decline across Europe.) But some of the hunters want to shoot all the time, at everything. Most of all, they want to shoot raptors, the rarer the better, and the fact that all of the raptors are protected at all times doesn't deter them at all. A hugely overstretched police force plus a disinterested, head-in-the-sand government mean they often get away with it, but BirdLife Malta's activities do make a huge difference.

This Marsh Harrier has already had at least one run-in with illegal hunters. Both of its legs are injured - we watched and filmed it as it left its roost (we heard several gunshots at the time) and flew out to sea, and its legs dangled hopelessly the whole time. It will struggle to hunt in this condition - it probably won't survive.

A case of 'Malta moult' - this Kestrel has had a sizeable hole blown out of its right wing. It can still fly and of course feathers regrow eventually... but  it may well be targetted again. Several Kestrel pairs are making nesting attempts on the islands this spring - it will be interesting to see whether any succeed. Because of the hunters, no other birds of prey breed on Malta, though there is suitable habitat for many species.

It isn't just the big and impressive birds that interest the hunters. Many keep collections of stuffed birds and are keen to kill new species to add to their private exhibitions. If migration really is quiet, the hunters will amuse themselves by taking bets on, say, who can be first to kill a passing Swallow. This Swallow will hopefully manage alright with its damaged wing, and continue its migration to a safer place.

Everywhere you go in the Malta countryside, you will see the little dry-stone buildings that the hunters use as hides. The extraordinary abundance of these hides illustrates the enormous popularity of hunting here. Also common are trappers' hides, from where the trappers illegally catch finches and other birds using decoys and clapnets.

In the woodlands of Mizieb, where some 200 dead protected birds were found last autumn, there are spent shotgun cartridges scattered liberally on the ground, along every path and trail through the trees. In nooks and crannies around the hides, they are piled up in their hundreds.

Many birdwatchers have boycotted Malta for years, in protest at the continued illegal hunting situation and the government's failure to sort things out. The BirdLife Malta message is... don't. Come to Malta on your holidays, but be aware of what goes on and be ready to report any illegal activity you see to the police. These are our birds, trying to migrate to northern Europe, and they need our protection. The more birdwatchers active in the countryside, whether on BirdLife Malta conservation camps or not, the more the hunters and trappers will have to curtail their activities. See here for everything you need to know:

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