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Guns and Raptors: Malta’s Migratory Season

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Antonia Devereux explains the issue of illegal hunting in Malta, and her experience working with BirdLife Malta to prevent wildlife crime during the peak Autumn migratory season.

Credit: Antonia Devereux

WARNING: This article contains images of injured birds which may be upsetting to some viewers.

This September I travelled to Malta to take part in BirdLife Malta’s Raptor Camp, a long-standing volunteer programme designed to prevent wildlife crime in Malta during the peak season of bird migration. After a week of very early mornings and far too many riffles, my eyes were opened to an issue I seldom knew of before. Illegal poaching in the country is rife, and is unfortunately not unique to the region, with the problem widespread across the Mediterranean. Despite its barbaric nature, a host of political and cultural factors are at play, meaning there is little resource to prevent illegal acts. The BirdLife Malta team hosts bi-yearly camps to help protect vulnerable and endangered birds, so that as many as possible make it off the island.

Hunting in Malta

Over 170 species of bird rely on the Maltese Islands during the autumn and spring migratory season. On the central route of Europe-African migratory flyway, the islands provide a much needed resting place for the birds to rest, and replenish their fat stores before continuing their migration. Amongst these species are many of the most vulnerable and protected birds, but instead of finding a safe haven on their long and perilous journey, they are met with, what I began to call, ‘Death Island’.

Cans on a line of string through the trees, used by Hunters to scare birds to shoot. Credit: Antonia Devereux

There are two stand out issues with this policy, with the first being that the bag limit is most definitely succeeded in each season. Hunters are required to register their kills from hunting and trapping, but in 2020 only 292 hunters (2.7% of overall licensed hunters) participated in the registering system. Action from the government and policing bodies is minimal. Secondly, the spring season is when the majority of breeding birds migrate, meaning that having a higher bag count in spring than autumn knocks out more of the strongest, breeding birds, putting further pressure on the Turtle Doves. 

Injured purple heron, upper wing break, euthanised. Credit: Rich, BirdLife volunteer.

It is illegal for hunters to shoot down any birds of prey, as well as larger protected birds such as herons, greater flamingos and storks at all times of the year. Saying the ‘S word’ was banned during my time with BirdLife Malta, as they rarely make it out alive if they do arrive on the island, and require constant supervision from the team. Malta is the only country in Europe and the Mediterranean with no regular breeding birds of prey after species including the Barn Owl went locally extinct, highlighting the disregard for the law. There is an Environmental Protection Unit in Malta, but the team has limited resources and the best committed officers are known to be ‘moved on’ to other sections within the police. BirdLife Malta works not only to protect birds but also provide support to this unit, calling them out whenever a hunter is seen/filmed committing an illegal act. 

A trapping sight in Malta. Credit: Antonia Devereux

Many Maltese people see hunting as a cultural aspect of their lives, and it is important to remember that not all hunters commit illegal acts. BirdLife Malta isn’t formally against hunting altogether, but is against the illegal hunting and persecution of vulnerable, protected, or engaged species.

My Time At BirdLife Malta

The camp consisted of 5am starts and out until breakfast around 8-9am. We had a break in the afternoon (which was mostly spent napping), and then met up for a team meeting to catch up on the latest shifts, before heading out for the evening shift 3:30-8pm. If an especially vulnerable bird arrives on the island, the camp would be out all day to attempt to help it leave the island safely. Although the schedule was tiring, I did get used to it.

Maltese Sunset on evening shift. Credit: Antonia Devereux

During my time I think I saw pretty much all of Malta – we went all over the place, including up many steep hills in horrendous hire cars (thankfully I wasn’t driving). We went on a day trip to Mdina, the old Capital of Malta and had a very nice cake, before it was cut short by an injured bird that needed a search and rescue mission. The general aim was to spread the team around the most notorious hunting areas and locations of birds if we had any information on where they were known to be. If you saw a raptor, you would immediately film it until it went out of sight in case it was shot at. If an incident occurred, this video evidence can then be used to submit to the authorities, in hopes of getting the hunter prosecuted, which can result in heavy fines, their hunting licence being revoked, and potential imprisonment. As you can imagine, the hunters aren’t too happy about us being around – I received my fair share of middle fingers and dirty looks, and even managed to end up in a car chase with some serious Bond-level moves from my fellow team member.

Unfortunately, there were a number of injured birds during my time at the camp, many of which were fatal. I witnessed the lethal shooting of a Common Kestrel, but we managed to film the hunter fleeing the scene after spotting us. The Environmental Protection Unit was called and the officers found the bird on the land, so it is likely that the hunter will be prosecuted. On another busy day, two lesser flamingos flew into the island. After originally landing in a nature reserve, they then flew into a well-known hunting area and decided to stick around, kickstarting a constant watch and film process. After sunset, we were forced to leave after the hunters on the land became increasingly agitated, and are known for being aggressive. The next morning, one flamingo was reported to be seen, but the status of the second was unknown.

Injured honey buzzard with minor wing break and shot pellets in left leg. Credit: Rich, BirdLife volunteer.

Despite the difficulty, there was happy news while I was in Malta. An infamous hunting point, Qawra Point, which saw the massacre of 4 flamingos in 2021, was made a nature reserve, and the hunter was sentenced to one year imprisonment and a lifelong hunting ban. The team also managed to get a number of birds to successful rehabilitation, and on my last day I saw the release of a honey buzzard – it was a really incredible experience and a perfect way to end the week. The highlight of my time there though has to be all the people I got to work with, and I am grateful for all the lovely connections I made during my stay.

If you are interested in the work that BirdLife Malta does, you can check out their website here to learn more. Who knows, maybe I’ll see you at the next Raptor Camp!

Honey Buzzard release. Credit: Antonia Devereux

About the Author: Antonia Devereux is Wild Magazine’s Managing Editor, a final year student at the University of York, and a self proclaimed birder. The general advice is to avoid walks with her at all costs, she will point out every robin, tit, and sparrow she sees. 

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