Warning: This post contains images of dead and dying birds.
Neil Glenn, a professional birdwatcher from Great Britain, traveled to Malta in spring of 2012 as part of Birdlife Malta’s efforts to combat poaching of migratory birds. Here is his shocking first-hand account of his time there, which originally appeared in Bird Watching Magazine.
I am witnessing the agonising death throes of a male Marsh Harrier. As the vet’s overdose of anesthetic pulses through its veins, this majestic bird of prey’s wings spasm violently before he finally, mercifully drifts to sleep, out of pain at last. Welcome to Malta.
Spurred into action by Seth Groonped, Art Yvel and Graeme Host’s powerful artwork, Crime Scene Malta, at last year’s Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition in London (‘art against extinction’), I travelled to the island in April 2012. I have been here three days, assisting the dedicated BirdLife Malta (BLM) team monitor illegalities perpetrated by the island’s 6,000+ registered spring hunters (and who knows how many unregistered?). Due to a lack of migrants, my time here had been quiet (although the volunteers had already logged over 9,000 shots around the island!) and I was enjoying a relaxing lunch in the sunshine on this typical Mediterranean island when I was suddenly yanked back into the realities of Maltese life. The vet had contacted BLM’s offices to say a Marsh Harrier (the individual described above), a Bee-eater and a Hoopoe had all been recovered.
The Marshie had been shot a few weeks previously and then apparently kept in dreadful conditions somewhere. Two boys had ‘found’ and handed in the bird but nothing could be done for him; an ignominious end to such a magnificent creature, much revered by British and European birdwatchers.
The Bee-eater had been found at the entrance to one of BLM’s two bird reserves; it had been shot elsewhere and unceremoniously dumped, possibly as a kind of ‘up yours’ to the conservationists. By now, I feel you may be getting an unwelcome glimpse into the twisted minds of the Maltese hunting fraternity!
The Maltese are a proud nation. The island was awarded The George Cross for bravery in the Second World War. Throughout history, they have been ruled by at least ten different powers, the last being Britain. They gained their independence in 1964 and, crucially, joined the European Union in 2004.
Maltesers have long regarded the hunting of migratory birds as a ‘proud tradition’, especially the spring shooting of Quails and Turtle Doves. The spring hunting of these particular two species is forbidden under the EU’s Birds Directive, which states that: ‘all bird species naturally occurring on the European territory of the EU are protected. This means they must not be deliberately killed, caught or disturbed, and their mating, breeding, feeding and roosting habitats must not be destroyed. The taking and destruction of eggs is prohibited as well as keeping of wild-caught birds’. Understandably, because of the history of Malta, the islanders feel aggrieved when told what to do by ‘outsiders’. However, they did sign up to the EU and therefore should comply with its Laws. Similarly, nations now rightly regard once ‘proud traditions’ such as slavery, cock fighting, bear baiting, etc. as outdated in a civilised society.
In 2009, The European Court of Justice condemned Malta for its past hunting and trapping derogations but the Maltese Government still granted a limited hunting season for spring 2010 (six half days). In spring 2012, based on hunters’ self-reported number of birds shot in the previous autumn (“Keep in mind that every Turtle Dove and Quail which is listed as caught in September may reduce the amount we will be able to catch in spring”- the Federation for Hunting and Conservation or FKNK), the Government (in contravention of EU Law, remember) granted a spring season of sixteen days (excluding Sundays) and permitted each hunter a ‘legal’ bag of four birds (Quail or Turtle Dove) during the season. Hunters must immediately send a text to the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA) to report how many birds they have shot. The number of birds reported killed in the autumn of 2011 was never verified. BLM countered: “In a scenario in which it was made very clear to the hunters that fewer birds declared in autumn would result in larger quotas in spring, over 10,000 hunters declared a total catch of just 4,274 Turtle Dove and 6,229 Quail last autumn. This is less than one per hunter over a five-month hunting period”.
The hunters appealed to the Maltese Government that they should be allowed to hunt Quail and Turtle Doves in spring because ‘there aren’t enough of them for us to shoot in the autumn’. The irony is almost too painful to bear, but the ploy worked and Malta granted a hunting season in spring 2012! BirdLife Malta is currently challenging Malta’s authority to apply this derogation to the Birds Directive.
Once the hunting rules were announced for 2012, the FKNK immediately released this statement on their website: “We do not agree with the government on the limited spring hunting season due to open later this month, or the conditions imposed on the hunters. We should be allowed to hunt on a Sunday because hunters work during the week and cannot take time off. Everything will be like last year…, except that you can catch 2 birds in 1 day, with a maximum of four in a season. Be careful, because if everyone catches one bird and sends an SMS, the season will close the next day”. After that advice, the additional comment, “We are urging hunters to observe the law and obey police orders. We will not tolerate any law-breaking”, seems a tad hollow.
As you can see, the Maltese Government is under immense pressure from the vocal hunting group, (FKNK) to allow the continued hunting of Quail and Turtle Dove, even though both species are in dramatic decline.
A spring camp on a Mediterranean island sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? The reality is somewhat different! I join BirdLife Malta’s Camp early in the season. They have already e-mailed me with strict instructions and forms to memorise and digest before my arrival. The feeling of this being a scene from Spooks is enforced when seconds after checking into the hotel, I receive a mysterious text: “Are you here yet? If so, come to the basement.”
It is in the basement that I am introduced to my life for the next seven days. Out into the field at first light to monitor the hunters (they like nothing more than two or three hours’ bird slaughter to set themselves up for work); back to the hotel for breakfast; maybe a bit of a rest or out to do some ‘proper’ birding; lunch; debriefing on the morning’s events and then straight out into the field again to monitor the hunters (it is illegal to hunt after 3.00pm); dinner; bed for five hours if you are very lucky and then start all over again. By the end of this ‘tour of duty’ one begins to wear the birding equivalent of a Vietnam Veteran’s 1,000 yard stare!
Over the coming days, it became obvious that migration across Malta was incredibly slow, although a total of 25,340 shots were counted by the volunteers during permitted hunting hours (nearly twice the number recorded in spring 2011!). The hunters I spoke with all bemoaned the lack of birds to shoot but they couldn’t quite compute that maybe there weren’t many birds because they had shot them all in previous years!
The lack of birds gave me time to speak with several local people, something veterans of the camp told me they usually had very little time to do. I tentatively approached one Maltese lady out walking her dogs next to one of the most infamous areas in Malta. “I hate the hunters! I find dead birds everywhere here but I feel I cannot speak out because I am in a minority. I walk my dogs here every day but feel I cannot go to certain areas because of the hunters. They tell me if I don’t like it, I shouldn’t go there but this is my countryside too! A shot bird landed next to me the other day and the hunter was going to leave it: they don’t care. I told him he should at least kill it so he picked it up and smashed its head against a rock. It still wasn’t dead so he did it again and threw it on the ground. I hate them!”
The lady in question was at Mizieb, a forest which the hunters claim was granted to them for hunting purposes (though no one has seen the official documents they say they have). This is also the wood in which the remains of over 200 protected birds (Hoopoes, Honey Buzzards, Night-Herons, etc) were found hidden under rocks in 2011! Whenever a bird cemetery is discovered, FKNK always come out and say that it was ‘planted’ by BirdLife Malta and/or CABS (the German conservation group Committee Against Bird Slaughter). There is no end to FKNK’s weasel words.
I had the pleasure of visiting Mizieb on a still, sunny Sunday morning. Forty seven shots rang out around the valley but none from the wood itself (you may recall that no hunting is permitted on a Sunday). This idyllic scene could have been a picture from any tranquil Mediterranean island: birds were singing, families were using the countryside for walking and cycling and best of all, seven Turtle Doves perched on telephone wires to sunbathe for an hour: bliss! If this had been any other morning, those doves would have been blasted by a volley of shots to rival The Somme.
I related this Sunday scene to a pro-hunting waitress at my hotel who approached me with the words, “Why Malta? Why only Malta? Why do you come here?” She maintained that Maltese people weren’t interested in going out into the countryside because they “were lazy”. She refused to believe that I had counted twenty one Maltesers who had approached the teams I was with to thank us for coming to do what we did! Frankly, these ordinary people were embarrassed by the shame brought upon their nation by the hunters’ attitude and behaviour (just Google ‘Malta Hunting’ and you will see what image Malta portrays around the world).
This attitude sometimes boils over into intimidation of BirdLife interns and volunteers, though usually manifests itself by the hunters omitting to wear the official yellow armband that shows they are registered to hunt during the spring season. When the police arrive, out come the armbands from pockets and are overtly displayed. Amusingly, a €250 fine swiftly wipes the smile off their faces!
Here are a few other things the Maltese hunters get up to:
- Modify guns to fire more than three shots in succession; a serious offence and we caught two such hunters.
- Claim that filming them is against their Human Rights. Hypocritically, they are taking BLM and CABS to the European Courts!
- There is a tiny ringing station in the public park below our hotel (no hunting allowed). A hunter was caught blasting birds with a shotgun. IN THE NETS!!
- A Spoonbill took refuge on BLM’s Ghadira Reserve. As soon as it flew over the boundary, a hunter shot it from a major public road, picked up the corpse and drove off with it.
- After I left Malta, a ‘Graveyard of Gulls’ was discovered by picnickers at Selmun: 14 decaying birds were found in an underground chamber. Predictably, FKNK claimed they had been planted.
- During Spring Camp 2012, 13 shot protected birds were retrieved by BLM plus the 14 gulls at Selmun. These included: 1 Golden Oriole, 2 Common Cuckoo, 1 Common Kestrel, 3 Bee-eaters, 2 Marsh Harrier, 1 Hoopoe, 1 Common Swift, 1 House Martin and 1 Woodchat Shrike (some were DOA and the others had to be euthanized).
- Over 730 illegal hunting incidents were recorded by BirdLife Malta’s Spring Watch teams during this spring’s hunting derogation including targeting protected species, exceeding the season’s legal daily bag limit, hunting outside permitted hours, and hunting without wearing the yellow armbands, a legal requirement of the derogation.
- Due to the ‘lack of birds in Malta’, hunters now travel abroad to shoot. More than one told me they travelled to Libya, Egypt, Argentina and England to pursue their ‘hobby’. CABS issued a film showing hunting of protected species in Egypt by Maltesers, species such as Bonelli’s Eagle, Osprey, White Pelicans, Egyptian Vulture, Lanner Falcon, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, etc. In November 2011, three hunters were arrested by Maltese customs officers with two Common Buzzards, two Oystercatchers and a Shelduck hidden amongst legal game in their luggage, all shot in Scotland. Doh!.
Some Normal Birdwatching
A few equally memorable but far more pleasant experiences emerged from amongst the death and gloom created by the hunters. Watching six elegant Montagu’s Harriers drop into roost one evening and then being there at first light with ‘my team’ to see them safely away was one such highlight (though one ringtail had an injured wing). Witnessing thirteen Marsh Harriers depart early one morning to the sound of sarcastic applause from disappointed hunters was another.
This latter scenario needs further explanation: last year, forty two Marshies were seen coming into roost at Mosta Gardens. A BirdLife Malta team watched in horror as torchlight appeared followed by shots. You see, our brave Maltese hunters, our ‘conservationists’, were spotlighting the harriers and then shooting them on the ground where they rested. Only two harriers left the roost the following morning. Because of this, if a large number of birds are seen to roost, teams are dispatched to keep an all-night vigil over them. Similarly, if a particularly prized bird appears over the island (such as an eagle or a stork, etc), teams track the bird(s) to try to find where they are roosting and try to protect them. It isn’t always successful. Ceri Levy, representing Ghosts of Gone Birds, tells the story of his very first Lesser Spotted Eagle that he watched circle lower and lower one evening only to be greeted by fourteen gunshots as it disappeared into what it thought was a safe roosting tree. Ceri obviously wasn’t the only one admiring this magnificent raptor!
Amazingly, Malta even managed to provide one of my best ever birding experiences! As I stood with ‘my team’ at Mosta, a flock of thirty or so Bee-eaters appeared in the valley below. We watched them as they flew up the hillside and then change direction to head towards us. I remember thinking, “No they won’t; surely they can’t?!” But they did; oh yes they did!! I instructed the others to stay perfectly still, and sure enough these impossibly dazzling aerobats zipped past us at head height or lower, straight along the path we were standing on. One even tried to go through the legs of my tripod only to twist at the last minute to pass between me and one of my colleagues. I will never forget those Bee-eaters and their wonderful calls; nor will I forget the beaming smiles on the faces of Ghosts… artists Kim Atkinson and Cally Higginbottom when I finally dared to move and breathe. It was a cathartic experience sullied by the wish that they move on quickly so as not to fall prey to any waiting hunters. Depressingly, our worries were not without substance: a few days later, Cally witnessed an injured Bee-eater being euthanized by the vet due to its injuries caused by a shotgun.
So what of the future for migrating birds in Malta? Don’t forget that the birds passing over the island have so far been proven to visit 38 countries, including Britain. These are not Maltese birds being slaughtered; they are our birds; European and African birds. It is scandalous that we allow these birds to be shot in this day and age. Of course, no country is squeaky clean: Cyprus is an eco-thug of the highest order and Spain, Italy, France and several other European countries have their hunting and trapping problems. Britain has a shameful record on protecting its precious birds of prey, especially the persecuted Hen Harriers on grouse moors. All very depressing.
However, when I was there, I felt that the green shoots of progress were beginning to sprout. Apart from the (albeit secret but burgeoning) support from many members of the public, I also met a few young Maltese birdwatchers who have swapped guns for cameras.
A nineteen-year-old youth I had the pleasure to meet, who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisals (I did say they were green shoots!) had just ringed Malta’s first Atlas Flycatcher! He is also a keen bird photographer, encouraged by his father who gave up shooting and trapping a while ago. This teen is now part of a growing Young Birdwatchers Club armed only with long lenses and binoculars.
As schoolchildren are increasingly taught to appreciate their natural habitat, surely the avid hunting mentality will slowly become extinct (hopefully before the Turtle Dove suffers the same fate). BLM’s reserve at Ghadira hosts many school parties throughout the week and the warden told me most of them leave with a new appreciation of what their environment could be like if hunting didn’t dominate. I just hope this generation will live to see that day arrive: each shotgun cartridge contains an average of 30g of lead shot and BLM counted 25,340 shots. That is 760.2 kilograms of lead lying around the countryside from just sixteen days of shooting in the tiny percentage of the island monitored. What a legacy to leave your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren!
I hope there will come a time when I am able to return to Malta as leader of a group of eco-tourists, to appreciate unmolested spring and autumn migration like I do at places such as Lesbos, Majorca, Spain, Texas, Britain, etc. Who knows, one of the young Maltese birders will be a Principal Guide on such a tour? I can but dare to dream…
What You Can Do
Volunteer for BirdLife Malta’s autumn Raptor Camps or Spring Camps to help monitor bird migration and illegal hunting (see website below for details). If you cannot afford, in terms of time or money, to go to Malta, consider joining BirdLife International to help fund their important work all over the world.
Keep up the pressure on all things Malta (and while you are at it, Cyprus!) by sending a polite e-mail to organisations such as visitmalta.com (who also sponsor Sheffield United FC), Air Malta, Thompson’s, Thomas Cook, etc, etc to explain why you are reluctant to visit the island until illegal hunting ceases.
Links and Further Reading
A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Malta by André Raine (2011)
The Breeding Birds of Malta by Joe Sultana, John J. Borg, Charles Gauci & Victor Falzon (2011)
A Complete Guide to the Birds of Malta by Natalino Feneche (Midsea Books)
I would like to thank the people at BirdLife Malta for welcoming me to Malta and then commenting on the first draft of this article. Further comments were made by Ceri Levy of Ghosts of Gone Birds and Jackie ‘Slasher’ Glenn. I would also like to thank the everyone at Springwatch Camp for their professionalism, dedication and good humour during my stay in April. A special thank you must go to Ben Newman for not snoring too loudly.