May 6, 2014
The Maltese Bird Massacres
I love the diminutive Mediterranean island of Malta. It has a stark beauty and a rich history. I have always felt extremely welcome there. But there is a battle taking place on Malta, a battle between conservationists and wildlife lovers on the one hand and those who continue an ancient tradition on the other. That tradition is the wholesale killing of birds, mostly those that arrive in Malta during long migrations across Europe. I have written before on redOrbit about the killing of songbirds for food, but this is different.
Ex punk, BBC TV presenter, and wildlife combatant Chris Packham is a man on a mission. Unable to find commercial backing, Chris took an independent team of unpaid volunteer film cameramen and BBC freelancers to Malta to record the annual illegal slaughter of endangered birds. In the build up to his trip it seemed as though he was getting ready for a visit to a war zone. A lot of people, some of Chris’s legions of fans included, thought this was hype. In the end the trip became a dramatic experience with arrests, threats, and intimidation but it was all caught on camera. The result was a huge increase in interest over the issue and a massive boost for the campaign to stop the killing. Thousands of followers watched the daily reports on YouTube.
The European Wild Birds Directive forbids the shooting of birds in spring. This is to protect those adult birds that have survived winter and are on migration to the breeding grounds. Their survival is essential if numbers are to be maintained. Yet Malta for some reason has an exemption, with 9,798 licenses being given out to allow the killing of up to 16,000 Turtle Doves and Quail. That in itself is bad enough but it doesn’t stop there. It’s the illegal shooting that is the real problem. The species is irrelevant. If it flies it can get shot. Not for food, not for subsistence, this is shooting and killing purely for its own sake. Nowhere was this better illustrated than on the night when Chris’s team was alerted to the killing of several Montague’s Harriers, a beautiful but rare and declining bird of prey. Chris had watched as around 20 Montagues flew in on their annual migration and settled down to roost on the ground – a much-needed respite in their travels. But during the hours of darkness the “hunters” moved in and began to kill them as they rested. Even if shooting a bird in flight can be judged a skill, taking pot shots at large un-missable exhausted birds roosting on the ground is nothing but wanton pointless slaughter.
The team met with antagonism from locals supporting the shootings. There were tensions between the filmmakers and the hunters. It culminated in Chris being arrested and questioned by police for 5 hours. The pro-shooting lobby in Malta obviously see the whole thing as a kind of post-colonial intervention in the country’s affairs. It is no such thing. These are not just native Maltese birds, they are from all over Europe and Malta is allowing them to be shot in a blatant breach of EU law.
The wheel may be turning, however, thanks to the enormous publicity Chris’s campaign and others like it are raising. Thousands of pounds have been raised for Bird Life Malta. Locals fear that vital tourism revenue will be hit. Most importantly, the Maltese people themselves seem to be turning against the killing. Many of them have signed a petition demanding a referendum on the issue. Polls suggest that around 65 percent would vote to ban the spring bird shoots. But the battle is not won yet. The hunters are a powerful lobby and Chris Packham claims in an article in UK’s Observer newspaper that some who have opposed the hunters have been harassed and that some have had their homes burned down. There is a long way to go.
Image Credit: Thinkstock