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Thursday, 11 August 2011

A difficult subject

As I type this entry, I am sitting next to my pool looking out across the sea on the lovely, unspoilt island of Gozo, which is located just off the south coast of Malta. This is our second visit to Gozo, having visited some 7 years ago.

Jayne, Hannah and I went for a drive yesterday and explored some of the less accessible parts of the island that we could find - well off of the beaten track and using bumpy unmade roads.

One of the first things I've noticed is the lack of birdlife here. There is a complete absence of any sort of seabird (although I did see a single Oystercatcher this morning). Not being sure as to why, I googled it and found a simple answer contained within a report written in the Independent in 2005 - it said that the reason why there are no gulls is because 'they shot them all'.

At that time, over 2 million birds were being trapped or shot each year - and that was a reduced number. In 1995, the numbers were far higher - something approaching 5 million birds. And yes, you did read that correctly - 5 million birds - now just let that sink in for a moment before you read on.

What I have seen here are a few sparrows, quite a few pigeons (racing pigeons and few escapees) and one or two birds lurking in hedgerows or cactus that I can't get near enough to id.

On our drive/explore I noticed quite a few stone structures that looked to all intents and purposes like pill boxes.

On a long walk/run this morning I went to check one out a bit closer.

It looked very much like a purpose built hide. Placed in front were various posts, 2 - 3 ft of the ground and set at various ranges. All had flat surfaces on top - it looked like the dense, brittle foam that flower arrangers use.

My conclusion (despite an absence of spent cartridges)- it was a hunters hide, and we saw literally dozens of these structures yesterday. The posts and platforms used for seed bait I guess for the tired and hungry migrants.

Whether this was a shooting or net trapping hide I don't know.

The villa we are staying in has wifi, so I did some googling when I got back and I have to say I was pretty horrified at what I found.

I realised very quickly that I knew precious little about hunting in Malta, but a little research brought me to the point of this piece.

During the spring, many birds use Malta and Gozo on their migration to northern breeding grounds.

Under EU law, the hunting of birds during their spring migration and breeding period is prohibited in general. Malta, however, insists on using a derogation clause of the EU Birds Directive for allowing the shooting of a limited number of individuals of two species (Turtle Dove and Quail).

Whilst the numbers of shot species appears to be diminishing (in line with the numbers of hunters) a quick search of the net revealed a litany of recent horror stories - Osprey, Red Footed Falcon, Honey Buzzard, a flock of Spoonbills seeking shelter during a storm, Lesser Falcon, a flock of White Stork - all birds that any wildlife lover would travel to see - all reported as being illegally shot by hunters.

And that's just the birds that have been found dead or injured and handed to the authorities. God knows how many get shot and not reported ?

Something else I've learned today is that when the island was ceded by Charles V to the Knights of St John in 1530, it was on condition that an annual rent of two Maltese falcons (a Peregrine variant) was paid - one to the Spanish emperor and the other to the viceroy of Sicily.

Maltese falcons were reputed to be the finest of the peregrines. By the 1970s, the species had been all but destroyed by hunting. The last pair was shot off Ta' Cenc cliffs in 1980 - this is on Gozo, and this was where we visited yesterday.

It may have been no accident that the bird in Dashiell Hammett's classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon, is not a real falcon, but a statue. But in the ultimate irony, Malta's national bird, the blue rock thrush, still featured on its one-lira coin - that is until the Euro took over.

Having said all of this, I am not against shooting - provided it is controlled, by the hunters and gamekeepers themselves, and the law. Provided also that the 'shoot' is of purpose reared 'game' birds that are for the table.

I wouldn't do it myself, but then I would eat, and have eaten, the prepared game.

What I can't get my head around however is just blasting something out of the sky for no reason other than 'tradition', or in the name of 'sport'. It staggers me that a place that is so beautiful and has such friendly people can support such a slaughter.

The UK is not immune of course - stories still appear all too frequently of birds of prey being illegally shot or trapped. Thankfully, the perpetrators seem to get caught and prosecuted regularly, so its certainly not open season.

Knowing how much people are willing to spend in their pursuit of rare and elusive species, I wonder what extra revenue would come to the islands if the hunters turned wardens and guides ? It is very evident that EU is investing funds on redevelopment on the islands - perhaps more pressure ought to be brought to bear and funds allocated in this direction ?

Sorry if this has been a depressing read for you, and subject for me to have researched, but I'll try to end on a relatively positive note.

RSPB, CABS (a German bird protection society) and MaltaBirdlife, the numbers of hunters appears to be diminishing. The numbers of licenses applied for is reducing year on year (Gozo had something like 56 applications in 2010 and less than half that for 2011). The Maltese government is also limiting the hunting window - this year was from 13 - 30 April, only.

Let's hope the trend continues and that the annual wonder of the migration of Europe's birdlife can use Malta and Gozo as a springboard rather than a very high, and deadly hurdle.

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