Quail hunting - a smokescreen for wildlife crime?
The spring hunting season in Malta was open this year between the 10th and 30th of April, from two hours before sunrise up until 12pm, and only one species was huntable, the common quail (Coturnix coturnix). European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) used to be a huntable species in spring, however since spring 2017, a moratorium was placed on turtle dove due to its declining population; the IUCN declared the species as ‘Vulnerable’ in 2015. Despite the moratorium, the season still opened during peak turtle dove migration, using quail (which migrates earlier), as a smokescreen for protected species to be targeted.
It is easy to differentiate quail hunters from unlawful hunters. Quail migrate at night, and hide in vegetation during the day; they require flushing to be hunted, which is usually carried out by hunters walking through fields with dogs. If a hunter is without dogs, and/or in a static position, for example sitting in a hide, looking in the air, he is not hunting quail.
BirdLife’s spring camp, Spring Watch, takes place every year during the spring hunting season to monitor and report illegal hunting. We have international volunteers across Europe that take part and help us out with this work, recording and reporting any illegalities witnessed in the morning and afternoon. The following diary entries provide an insight into BirdLife’s Spring Watch.
The first day of Spring Watch. Our team are barely at our watchpoint ten minutes when we hear a modified shotgun being used, four shots ring through the countryside and it’s not even light yet. A modified shotgun is any shotgun that can fire more than three shots in a row without reloading, or has a silencer attached; and is illegal. Other teams observed hunters in hides aiming for passing turtle doves. In the afternoon, we walked through Madliena, a wooded area, not a typical quail habitat. Despite this, we found makeshift hides throughout the area, with fresh shotgun cartridges littering what otherwise would make a very pleasant walk. An area like that is difficult to patrol as you would be easily spotted by hunters, who would contact each other using two-way radios or phones, and quickly scarper.
Today is the day the start of turtle dove killing really kicked off. One team recorded several hunters shooting at turtle doves. In the afternoon, we received a call from a woman in Madliena, who had witnessed a hunter shoot down a turtle dove when she was out walking her dog with her children. We were able to retrieve the turtle dove, but unfortunately with a chest full of lead, it would not be able to survive and had to be euthanised. However, it is not just the hunting of protected species that affects the environment; a huge amount of waste is left behind by hunters including; discarded cartridges, plastic bottles, food wrappers. Littering is a crime and should be treated as such, especially when dealing with shotgun cartridges which contain lead residues that are toxic for the environment.
Another busy day of observing hunters targeting protected species, not just turtle doves, but also marsh harriers were also being shot at. In the afternoon, we went for a walk through Miżieb, the hunting federation’s (FKNK) claimed hunting land. We found a temporary hide right next to a public footpath, and just metres away, a dead turtle dove. This shows that the FKNK have no control over their members; it is easy for hunters to erect makeshift hides and hunt illegally within their own land without needing to worry about law enforcement.
Easter Weekend, 20th& 21stApril
Easter, a celebration of life, but not in Malta. Despite the strong winds, our teams were still witnessing illegal hunting throughout the island. Men in tower hides, scanning the sky for protected birds and warning each other on their radios of our presence. Modified shotguns could be heard blasting through the countryside, no doubt being used to hunt anything but quail. The poor weather lasted a few days, providing a form of deterrent to some of the hunters.
A day that cannot be wiped from memory. We were walking down a disused road in Wied Dalam, an area where a lot of hunting occurs. We saw a turtle dove fly out of the trees in front of us, and before we could get a camera on it, it was shot down. Blasted with so much force that it landed amongst the thick vegetation near us. After around half an hour of searching, we eventually find the turtle dove in a bush, still alive. The vet declared it fit for rehabilitation and it will be released soon.[i]
Outside the hunting season, our teams are still hearing gun shots in the countryside. The hunters do not feel intimidated by the law enforcement; if they did, they wouldn’t be so blatantly breaking the law. A strong police presence would help to greatly reduce the number of hunting illegalities. Unfortunately there is no dedicated wildlife crime unit, and the police are spread thin trying to monitor hunting alongside their other duties.
Although spring hunting was over; some hunters hadn’t gotten the memo, as we still received calls from the public regarding shot birds. We received nine illegally shot birds including species that are rare to see in the UK; European nightjar, black kite, European bee-eater. The natural reaction from British birders is to boycott Malta until the madness stops, but this is not the way to change Malta’s perspective. Boycotting Malta has little effect on the hunters; as far as they are concerned, boycotting will mean fewer tourists walking around theircountryside. On a previous visit, Chris Packham stated that Malta would make a great birding holiday, and I concur. Malta should be a peaceful stopover for migrating birds, and everyone should be allowed to walk out into the countryside and enjoy them.
There are better ways to help the fight against illegal hunting in Malta. BirdLife Malta run two camps every year; one in spring, the other in autumn, which require volunteers to take part, helping us to monitor the hunting season. If you wish to participate at one of these camps, contact the camp coordinator, Alice Tribe; firstname.lastname@example.org. Running these camps, rehabilitating birds, running campaigns, all require money which we get from donations; you can give a one-off donation to BirdLife Malta, or become an overseas member. You can also write to your MEP and voice your concerns on spring hunting.
[i]The turtle dove was ringed and released at Ghadira nature reserve on 23rdMay 2019.
Diary written by: Stephanie Leow