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MALTA NARROWLY VOTES TO RETAIN SPRING HUNTING IN REFERENDUM

The Ark has been following the progress of the campaign to ban the shooting of migratory birds in Malta since its autumn 2014 edition, when Mark McCormick, Senior Communications Officer at The League Against Cruel Sports, first reported to us.  Mark updated us on progress in the spring 2015 edition. In the summer 2015 edition, Chris Fegan advised us, in his general secretary’s report, that the referendum to end spring hunting had just been lost by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. The latest update is presented here by Mark.

BY MARK McCORMICK – Autumn 2015

Mark McCormickIn April this year I travelled to Malta with wildlife expert and presenter Bill Oddie as part of a team from the League Against Cruel Sports. We were there to monitor the outcome of a referendum to ban spring hunting in Malta. We were hopeful, optimistic and praying for a positive outcome.  

In spring, hunters in Malta target turtle dove and quail during the migration of birds flying north from Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe. Spring hunting is forbidden by the European Union’s Birds Directive, however Malta is using a loophole in EU law to allow spring hunting for three weeks in April. But it’s not just turtle dove and quail that suffer at the hands of the hunters. Many protected and endangered bird species are massacred under the cover of the ‘legal shooting’. In the spring edition of The Ark I wrote about our trip to Malta in September 2014 when a majestic short toed eagle went missing after we heard gun shots where it was roosting. Such beautiful and awesome creatures are shot out of the sky during their epic migrations. It is the most tragic thing I have ever come across in my life.

Malta, the only Country in Europe that Allows the Hunting of Migratory Birds

So as you can imagine we were paying close attention to the referendum in which the Maltese people could vote to ban this barbaric spring hunt. However on the 11th April, despite much campaigning by Maltese residents, keen to protect the birds during their migrations, and despite all the polls showing a ban on spring hunting being the likely outcome, the vote was lost by 51 per cent in favour of retaining hunting to 49 per cent voting to ban it – a margin of just 2,220 votes. It was so close.

This means that Malta will remain the only country in Europe that allows the spring hunting of migratory birds and needs to be very concerned about how this vote will affect its reputation as a safe holiday destination in the spring.

Reacting to the news that the Maltese Spring Hunting Referendum had gone in favour of the hunters, the League Against Cruel Sports issued a statement which said, ‘With only a narrow vote to continue to allow this cruel and unnecessarycarnage, it is time for the Maltese government to demonstrate that it is determined to stamp out illegal hunting. Enforcement must be improved and strengthened so that illegal hunters are caught and punished appropriately. This is not the end. We will continue to campaign to stop this massacre of migratory birds’.

Bill Oddie also talked about hearing the result and said, ‘When the result came in I was watching the Maltese TV news and saw a bunch of men jumping up and down singing and cheering because they will be able to continue their slaughter of migratory birds. That’s one of the most depressing moments of my life’.

I was standing with Bill when the result came in and I can concur on these feelings. Birdlife Malta volunteers and activists had gathered in the hotel lobby and bar to watch the result on the TV and it was such a dark and depressing mood. Seeing the tears in the eyes of those Maltese activists who I have come to know, respect and developed friendships with during my time in Malta, was really difficult to bear. Some activists had been campaigning for decades and they thought this would be the moment when migratory birds, which they love and cherish, would be able to fly safely over their islands.

The Illegal Shooting Continues

But out of the darkness shone a light and this is why my respect and admiration for my Maltese friends knows no bounds. Yes, we were demoralised, angry and shocked, but immediately following the result the Birdlife Malta volunteers and activists were preparing for the next day – the beginning of the spring hunting season. As far as they were concerned nothing had changed and they had to be out in the fields like always monitoring the bird migrations and on the look out for illegal persecution.

In the wake of the referendum result the Maltese Prime Minister, Dr Joseph Muscat, warned that hunters must respect the law and that they were on their final warning. This language seemed clear. If there is any illegal shooting the hunting season will close.

Early on the first morning of the spring hunting season we travelled into the heart of hunting country under the cover of darkness so as not to be spotted by hunters. This was for our own safety but mainly so that we would not give away our position and we could catch any hunters in the act of illegal shooting. We had parked on a road with trees and scrubs masking our presence as we overlooked a valley close to a point where many birds land during their migration. The sun had literally just risen and a shot rang out right in front of us. To our horror a bird of prey, which we think was a buzzard, was desperately flying away from the valley and a hunter had blatantly taken a shot at it. Only seconds into the spring hunting season we witnessed illegal shooting. Thankfully the bird escaped unharmed but this was not a positive sign of things to come and we knew this was just the beginning.

On the second day of spring hunting a cuckoo was illegally shot by a hunter. This beautiful bird had flown from the Congo to breed in Northern Europe, and could have been making its way to the UK. We challenged the Prime Minister to stick to his word.

Days after hunters were just about given the benefit of the doubt in a referendum; they prove they could not be trusted by shooting a protected bird out of the sky. Surely this must have been enough for the Prime Minister to trigger his promise to take action against the hunters and suspend hunting this spring? Sadly not.

Spring Hunt Terminated

Other illegal shooting incidents followed and still the hunters were allowed to continue with their massacre. It was only on the 27th April, three days before the spring hunting season was set to close, that the Prime Minister finally took action. A shot-down kestrel crashing into a Maltese school yard, to the horror of the school children present, achieved what a national referendum failed to do. Prime Minister Muscat immediately called a halt to the hunting season.

Kestrel

The Maltese Spring hunt is a tradition that is out of time, and should never have gone ahead. It was welcomed that this spring hunt was brought to an early halt, and we can only hope that a clear lesson will be learned. Hunters with guns either cannot or will not distinguish between birds that are their legal targets or any of the other species that happen to be flying overhead.

Birds flying back to Europe for the spring breeding season are not the property of a few hunters in Malta. Shooting for sport is cruel and unnecessary and I hope that, come next spring, the memory of what has happened will remain strong, and the Spring Hunt will be banned for good.

However we cannot wait in hope of this happening. It is imperative that international volunteer monitoring in the next spring hunting season is bigger and better than it has ever been and I would encourage birders, wildlife enthusiasts and activists from across Europe to support the Maltese people who want to see an end to shooting of birds on the island.

When we visited Malta during the autumn hunting season last year we spoke to Maltese people about their views on hunting. We collected their stories which you can see as a film on our website. In this film you will hear nothing but the voices of Maltese people – those passionately for hunting, those passionately against hunting and those stuck in the middle.

To see the powerful video and for more information visit – http://www.league.org.uk/malta

You can also view our video updates which we produced during the referendum and the beginning of the spring hunting season at this linkhttp://bit.ly/1FUvwke

To find our more about joining the monitoring groups in Malta at the next spring hunting season please visit www.birdlifemalta.org ֍

MALTA BIRD UPDATE

BT CCA GENERAL SECRETARY, CHRIS FEGAN- Summer 2015

chris fegan picMembers will be aware from the previous two editions of The Ark that we have been playing an active role in supporting the campaign to end the horrendous shooting of migratory birds in Malta.  Unfortunately the attempt to stop the Spring Hunting Season has failed and the referendum was lost by 51 per cent to 49 per cent in favour of retaining the hunt. Although the result was incredibly close this is no consolation for the birds who will lose their lives in the weeks following the hunt which resumed its disgraceful activities on Tuesday 14th April. I visited Malta with representatives of the League Against Cruel Sports, including Bill Oddie, for the referendum result and also talked to CCA members living on the island and to the various bird protection organisations involved in the Spring Hunting Out (SHout) campaign.  A full report on the visit and the potential steps forward for bird protection and other animal welfare issues on Malta will appear in the next Ark.

MALTA’S BIRDS UPDATE

In the last edition of The Ark Mark McCormick wrote about the League Against Cruel Sports’ campaign to end the shooting of migratory birds in Malta. In April last year he joined a team from the League, made up of campaigners and investigators, as they made their way to Malta, along with wildlife expert and League Vice President, Bill Oddie, to witness and learn about spring hunting. In September this year he returned to Malta with another team from the League to make a film about autumn hunting.

BY MARK McCORMICK – Spring 2015

TEN THOUSAND HUNTERS on the islands can legally shoot unlimited numbers of birds, including turtle dove, quail, skylark and song thrush for a five month period between September and January. Illegal hunting also takes place during this period with many rare species being blasted from the sky in a hail of lead shot.

As this year’s hunting season got underway a number of disgraceful shootings of protected and rare birds led to an unprecedented move by the Maltese Prime Minister to close the autumn hunting season from 20th September until 10th October.  These dates were specifically chosen as this is when peak migration of many of the protected species occurs on the islands. The response to the closing of the hunting season during this period resulted in an explosive and violent reaction from the hunting community. Hundreds of hunters took part in an illegal protest in the capital, Valletta, hurling abuse and bottles at government supporters and also assaulting journalists attempting to cover the protest. Not long after this illegal protest, a group of around thirty hunters attacked a group of birdwatchers who were enjoying the beautiful sight of migratory birds making their way inland to roost. Despite the pleas of the birdwatchers, pointing out that there were women and a child amongst them, the hunters hurled rocks the size of a fist which resulted in injuries. The birdwatchers were then chased and surrounded but a number of Maltese people gathered around the birdwatchers to protect them until the riot police arrived.

Referendum to Ban Spring Hunting

This tactic is not gelling well with the Maltese people. Everyone we spoke to were absolutely furious at the actions of the hunters. With a referendum to ban spring hunting coming up in 2015, I am certain that the actions of the hunters will act as the catalyst for people to come out and vote – and relegate this massacre of migratory birds to the history books once and for all.

However, regardless of what laws, rules or curfews are in place, some hunters are absolutely determined to break the law and stick to their motto – ‘if it flies, it dies’. Our darkest day was on the 30th September. A short-toed eagle was sighted as it landed in Malta during its migration to roost before continuing on its journey.

These birds are a rare visitor to Malta, and whilst we were very excited to see such a beautiful creature, the species is highly sought after for illegal taxidermy collections. We were concerned for the safety of the bird and our friends at BirdLife Malta had organised a watch to safeguard it during the night. But tragically, despite our best efforts, at 6.24am, two shots were fired from the area where the eagle was resting. A member of the League’s team was there at this moment and footage was captured of the distressing moments following the gun shots. The police were immediately informed, and arrived at the scene to investigate shortly after. The short-toed eagle was never seen again.

In reaction to the targeting of the short-toed eagle the League announced that it was offering a €2,000 reward for evidence that leads to the conviction of anyone supplying illegally shot birds for taxidermy. The reasons for this are twofold. One is that we are obviously outraged at this incident and the other is that the main driver for illegal killing of rare birds, such as the short-toed eagle, is taxidermy, with such rarities featuring high on the wish-list of many hunters or collectors.

Keep Supporting Malta

I am completely opposed to any notion of boycotting Malta. It is a small minority of people that are shooting the birds and so why should we hold the entire nation to ransom because of the actions of a few? And let’s take a look at what the Maltese people ARE doing in response to the issue. They are forcing a referendum to ban spring hunting; the main newspapers in Malta joined forces to declare their support for banning spring hunting and, because of the cases of illegal activity at the start of this hunting season, the government introduced a blanket ban on all shooting until peak migration ended. We should be applauding the Maltese people for the actions they have taken against the persecution of raptors and migratory birds. If you want to really help end the persecution of migratory birds in Malta then you need to support the Maltese people in their efforts to address this problem. Support our friends at Birdlife Malta and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter and please support the work of the League Against Cruel Sports.

If I can end this article on one further note… Just prior to our visit the Auxiliary Bishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, joined birdwatchers at Buskett at the same site where some of them were attacked by hunters just 24 hours after the incident. Speaking to the media in solidarity with the birdwatchers he said, ‘I encourage people to appreciate nature as God’s gift, take care of it and enjoy it so that the heritage of nature will continue in time. Remember the words of Jesus, “Look at the birds in the sky”. It fills me with a sense of responsibility; that we need to take care of these creatures. The Lord gave us the role of stewardship, not to destroy, but to take care of them.’

During the League’s visit to Malta they recorded a number of video dairies which can be viewed on their website at www.league.org.uk/malta

 

IF IT FLIES, IT DIES!’

THE SHOOTING OF MIGRATORY BIRDS IN MALTA

In April this year Mark McCormick, Senior Communications Officer at the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), joined a team from LACS, made up of campaigners and investigators, as they made their way to Malta, along with wildlife expert and League Vice President, Bill Oddie OBE.

BY MARK McCORMICK – Autumn 2014

I HAD NEVER BEEN TO MALTA BEFORE and prior to this visit I pictured Malta as a beautiful group of islands in the Mediterranean full of history and culture, temperate climate, a rugged coastline, and blue skies… a perfect holiday destination. And I have to say it has all that, Malta is beautiful and I found the people friendly and interesting. But not all is as it seems.

As you stand and overlook the Maltese landscape the sounds of gunfire burst overhead and across the beautiful valleys from dusk till dawn. This is ‘spring hunting’ and we were there to bear witness to this horror.

The Spring and Autumn Migrations

But first let me give you a bit of context as to why we made our way to these islands in the first place. Every spring and autumn millions of birds make their way back and forth from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere and these migrations are, without a doubt, one of the most breath-taking natural occurrences you can witness. Around 340 bird species use the islands of Malta as stopovers on their long migrations between Europe and Africa every year. Of these, 170 species use Malta as a stop-off point regularly, and the vast majority are protected by law, rare or in serious decline.

There is amazing diversity in the birds that visit Malta. You have species such as the song thrush, cuckoo and skylark as well as some of the world’s most majestic and beautiful birds of prey, such as the marsh harrier and honey buzzard. You would think this is something to treasure, right? Surely this is something tourists, birders and wildlife enthusiasts all over the world would come to see? You would assume that, during their respite in Malta, these birds are protected by the Maltese Government, not just out of respect for the visiting wildlife, but to reap the rewards and income that tourism from such diversity of wildlife can bring. Sadly this is not the case. I struggle with the words to appropriately describe it, other than the truth is grotesquely depressing.

Abusing a Loophole in EU Law

In Malta, migratory birds are not treasured in photo albums, birding guides or in tourist materials… instead they are ‘treasured’ in hunters’ trophy cabinets as stuffed ornaments which have been shot from the sky. As they come in to land, migratory birds are greeted by up to 10,000 hunters with the chilling motto, “if it flies… it dies”. It’s a massacre. An absolute tragedy which the Maltese Government not only tolerates but encourages and protects by what I can only explain as an absurd abuse of EU law.

For three weeks in April hunters target turtle dove and quail even though spring hunting of these birds is expressively forbidden by EU law under the Birds Directive. They get around this with a legal loophole called a derogation (a legal exemption) which allows them to shoot up to 16,000 birds.

LACS1This in itself is shocking because, as Bill Oddie explained to us, ‘Turtle dove and quail are important species in Europe and in critical decline. By shooting during migratory periods there is no chance for these populations to strengthen and develop. Our conservation efforts in Europe are a drop in the ocean if this kind of activity continues. It is beyond comprehension that this (spring hunting) is allowed to happen’.

Abusing the Quotas

It is madness that such an obvious abuse of this loophole, which consents to the massacre of migratory birds and acts as the catalyst for the shooting of other protected bird species, is allowed. But the madness grows before a single shot is even fired. Let’s look at those figures again – 16,000 turtle dove and quail are legally allowed to be shot by hunters. However, last year over 9,500 hunters legally registered for spring hunting with a limit for the season of killing four birds each. The maths does not add up. Only 16,000 can be legally shot but even if they just shot their quota it would mean 38,000 dead turtle dove and quail. And they by no means just shoot their quota. The madness continues when the process for counting how many birds have been shot is left in the ‘impartial’ hands of the hunters themselves. They are instructed to send in text messages every time they shoot a bird, but of course they do not do this.

BirdLife Malta and the Spring Watch Camp

Our objective for visiting Malta was to support BirdLife Malta, the main organisation campaigning against spring hunting, and help to expose and raise international awareness about the issue. We set off early on the 1st April for four days, during which we joined the Spring Watch camp set up by BirdLife Malta to monitor the impacts of spring hunting and to highlight any illegal activity which takes place.

Each morning we convened at 5am in the basement of the hotel where BirdLife Malta had set up their HQ for the Spring Watch camp. The volunteers would then be split into groups and given their monitoring post for the morning session. I vividly remember one morning when we set off towards our monitoring point where, the night before, up to twenty marsh harriers had flown in and roosted. We had to get out there quickly because the hunters were also aware that the marsh harriers had landed and were no doubt thinking that such a beautiful bird would make a nice addition to their trophy cabinet.

Arriving at a War Zone

I was sitting in the back of a less than comfortable Jeep feeling every bump of the road as we made our way out to the location. It was still dark. I could hear the sound of thousands of starlings in the trees eerily accompanied by the sounds of gunfire in the distance. I felt like I was on my way to a war zone. The adrenaline and unease was setting in and I just kept thinking that, when I get out of the Jeep, I may witness one of the most beautiful birds of prey, so rare and endangered, being blasted from the sky for nothing more than sport and fun.

We arrived on location just as the sun had risen and quickly took up positions to get the best views of the landscape. It didn’t take long to notice the hunters had got there before us, you could see them across the landscape, but there was no sign of the marsh harriers anywhere. I could quickly see the looks of despair on the faces of those in my team because we thought we may have got there too late and maybe the hunters had already shot the marsh harriers.

But literally less than five minutes after we arrived we saw the first marsh harriers rise from their roosts and take off. We made sure we were highly visible to all the hunters in the area to act as deterrent from them illegally shooting these birds. I don’t think I have ever felt so tense in all my life, seeing each bird rise and fly away, I kept expecting to see one of the hunters raise his gun and shoot them down but our presence kept them from doing so. I think we counted nineteen marsh harriers that rose from their roosts and flew away unharmed. Knowing our team’s presence likely saved these birds from ending up in a trophy cabinet felt satisfying. I felt like we had made a difference. But then at the same time I kept thinking how so much of it was luck. What if we didn’t know the marsh harriers had landed in that location the night before? What if we had arrived five minutes later? We may have saved these birds, but so many more would not be saved.

A Public Safety Issue

Of course the indiscriminate killing of migratory birds is the key issue here, but another element to this is the human safety aspects of hunting in Malta. The landscape is literally littered with hunters in close proximity. I witnessed hunters not just shooting into the air but across valleys and fields. I couldn’t help but think it is unbelievable that people do not get accidently injured or killed.

This thought was unpleasantly highlighted on a subsequent afternoon when we joined another monitoring team of BirdLife Malta close to the airport. I was standing on a public road, fully visible and monitoring a number of hunters. It all happened very quickly as one hunter suddenly turned and aimed his gun in my direction. I caught this on camera before ducking out of the firing line. It wasn’t until reviewing the footage later that I could see the barrel of his gun was aiming right down the camera lens.

Either he was trying to intimidate me or he was aiming for a target and stopped himself from shooting as he noticed me in his firing line. Both scenarios are quite sinister and again raise the public safety concerns. We spoke to a number of people who said they don’t take their dogs out for walks during spring hunting and when I ended up in the sights of the hunter… well I could see why this would be the case for many Maltese people and tourists.

Video Diaries on the Website

I could describe so many more moments about the experience of seeing spring hunting but I would probably need every page in this publication to do so. We created a number of video diaries which we released live each day during the trip which capture much more about the situation on the ground. I would invite you to view these on the League Against Cruel Sports website as well as our film which we created with Bill Oddie to expose the shooting of migratory birds in Malta.

The Amazing Maltese ‘People-Power’

I know I have painted a pretty grim picture, but all is not lost for the migratory birds that rest on Malta during migration. Like anywhere else in the world, hunters on Malta make up a very small, albeit very vociferous minority. Opinion polling shows that a majority of the Maltese population are opposed to spring hunting. This anti-hunting opinion is now making its way onto the political agenda and not because of politicians in Malta, but because the Maltese people have used a mechanism within their democratic structures which allows for a referendum to held if ten per cent of the electorate sign a petition. A petition was started which would have required 33,000 Maltese to sign before initiating the process for a referendum.

The good news is that an amazing 44,000 signatures were collected which demonstrates the strength of feeling against spring hunting amongst the Maltese people. These signatures have now been verified and it looks like the referendum will be going ahead next year. Could we have witnessed the last ever spring hunting season in Malta? We can only hope so and that when we return spring hunting has been abolished to the history books.

Support the Maltese People

This is why we do not support boycotts of Malta. It is in fact the Maltese people who are leading the way in the Mediterranean in stopping the persecution of migratory birds. Let’s not forget that in Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Italy we also see persecution of migratory birds. It is the Maltese people that are being revolutionary through the use of this people’s referendum to abolish spring hunting. They are making huge strides to force their own government into banning spring hunting and we must support them in doing so. The League Against Cruel Sports will continue to support the campaign to secure the referendum next year and continue to support our friends at Birdlife Malta. To keep up to date with our campaign to support the Maltese people in abolishing spring hunting please visit www.league.org.uk/malta. Please also visit Birdlife Malta’s website http://www.birdlifemalta.org