Malta is curiously positioned under a major bird migration route. In the middle of the mediterranean between Italy and Tunisia. It's a green haven for tired birds looking for a place to rest on their long journeys home (well I like to think they are coming home as I think of the swallows, cuckoos and other birds that return to my garden as welcome friends coming back each spring after their winter break in the sun - what they are actually doing is going back to their summer breeding grounds - some of which are at my home).
Malta also has the only bird spring hunting exemption in the whole of Europe. This year their hunting season is from the 14th to the 30th of April. They are allowed to shoot a certain number of quail and turtle doves (16,000 birds can be killed in total during the season (11,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail), each licensed hunter is allowed to kill 4 birds in total of Turtle Dove and/or Quail). What actually happens, as highlighted by BirdLife Malta, The League against Cruel Sports and others, is that some members of the hunting fraternity get all gung ho and shoot anything that flies.
Researchers have discovered that over 170 different types of birds fly over Malta during the hunting season and 384 different bird species have been recorded in Malta (some obviously stay there all year round). BirdLife Malta investigators in 2013 had 19 different species reported to them and observed 65 incidents of shooting at protected birds including the Pallid Harrier, Common Cuckoo, Marsh Harrier and Nightjar. 65 dead or injured birds might not seem like a lot, but bear in mind that the investigators could not cover the whole of the island so no ones knows what the actual total of illegally shot birds was and that some of the birds being shot are rare and getting rarer for example the Pallid Harrier is Europe's most threatened raptor so killing even just three of them as we know happened in 2013 will impact significantly on the sustainability of their population.
2014 saw the incredible footage from Chris Packham as he and a small team recorded daily video diaries about his experience of spending a week in Malta during the hunting season. Watching that footage was part of the impetus for creating the MIGRATION MASSACRE quest.
Fast forward to this year 2015. Just a few weeks ago the Maltese held a referendum on the hunting question. They voted by 51% to 49% to continue to shoot birds in the Spring (such a narrow margin I would have asked for a recount!). Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister said "there is a clear message to the government that people want spring hunting to continue, in a regulated manner; and another clear message that they want the environmental agenda to be placed higher up" and continued "I’m ready to close the season if there is a flagrant breach of the law. If hunters are not ready to take the law seriously…"
Perhaps the threat of taking the hunting away from the hunters is working to protect the protected birds. I can find only a little news about birds being shot illegally; a cuckoo and a lapwing shot in the first few days. The cuckoo hunter was fined €2,500, had his licence suspended for three and a half years and his shotgun and ammunition were confiscated. The lapwing hunter was sentenced to three months imprisonment and had his shotgun confiscated.
It is important to keep vigilant about the illegal shooting and to keep the pressure on the Maltese government to keep to their word.
You can do the MIGRATION MASSACRE quest to keep the pressure and awareness of this issue in the policy makers sight. After all the protected birds maybe safer when flying over Malta this spring but the quails and turtle doves are still being shot and their numbers are declining rapidly too.
With over 384 different birds to spot, beautiful landscapes, amazing weather and we know that at least 49% of the population are lovely people, wouldn't it be amazing for Malta to become a birdwatchers paradise rather than a bird killing zone.
Three days before the hunting was to close Dr Muscat the Prime Minister of Malta closed the hunting season when another bird was shot down illegally (this time a kestrel) and landed in a school playing field.