Of Ospreys and illegal hunting

September 19, 2013 4:17 pm

by Richard Thaxton

Richard is the site manager at the RSPB’s Loch Garten reserve, famous for its breeding Ospreys. Two of this years chicks from Loch Garten have been fitted with satellite tags and are being tracked as they migrate for the first time. Click here to see where they are now and how they got there!

Ospreys have been my life. I’ve been watching them, studying them and working with them for nigh-on 30 years, and sharing my passion for them with hundreds of thousands of people. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them wherever I have traveled to in search of birds and other wildlife and no matter where in the world I am, they are a connection with home in Scotland.

On Sunday 15th September, abroad again, I picked up and tracked a flying osprey in my telescope, thrilled at the sight and spirits lifted by this encounter with an old friend. Then the realisation kicked in, the pulse quickened and the thrill was tempered with trepidation – because of where I was.

So where was I? Had I stepped out of a time-machine back in 18th Century Britain? And what was it that filled me with angst? As I panned my telescope and followed the osprey’s passage, I feared for gunshots. Not slow and inaccurate muzzle-loading, flintlock muskets of that era, where & when ospreys were hunted along with so much other bird life, perhaps essential in those days for food, but the fear was of hearing a fusillade of shots from a phalanx of modern rapid-fire semi-automatic shotguns. For where was I but the hostile territory, badlands and bandit country that is modern day Malta, where illegal hunters throw up a curtain of lead through which ospreys and all manner of migratory birds must pass en route to their wintering grounds in Africa, running the gauntlet of biannual Spring and Autumn migrations through this lead curtain of hostility. 

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are large birds, with wingspans of two meters.
When migrating they often soar on thermals to save energy, like this one
flying over Malta in the autumn on its way to Africa.

Thankfully this osprey continued on its way, beyond my vision, appearing safe, for now. It was,after all, after 1pm, when on Sundays a hunting curfew comes in to “force” when no hunting legal or otherwise can take place. However, shots did ring out, in flagrant disregard and flouting of the curfew, like the flagrant flouting of most other hunting laws by some miscreants in Malta. Under such a regime, despite the curfew, why would an osprey be any safer?

In Malta ospreys are highly prized by illegal hunters. If any arrive and pass through the island, word spreads like wild fire amongst the poachers, intent on adding osprey to their bag list of species shot, be it for fun or for sale to the illegal taxidermy trade.

My fear for the osprey I was watching was all the greater because just prior to coming out to Malta, word had reached me from a friend at BirdLife Malta, with a link to a press item in The Times of Malta, of an osprey fitted with a satellite trackingtag fitted in Corsica having arrived in Malta, and never left. It was almost certainly shot.

I’m involved in tracking Scottish ospreys on their migration to West Africa and though their routes thankfully do not include arriving in Malta, they no-doubt face perils too; bad weather, collisions with power lines, lack of food or their inexperience at catching it, and quite likely hunted too, but at least for food by impoverished and hungry people from African communities, not just for fun as in Malta.

Thankfully, during my stay in Malta, so far, I have been spared witnessing the horror of seeing an osprey shot, or anything else for that matter, yet. Other colleagues here on Raptor Camp 2013 have not been so lucky. Some have witnessed migrant honey buzzards blasted out of the sky, and another report received involved the illegal shooting of black stork.

As if migrant birds didn’t have enough to contend with to overcome the problems that may befall them on their perilous journeys, often their first, in addition they have Malta’s senseless and pointless curtain of lead to negotiate and from what I’ve seen of the island so far, festooned as it is with hunting hides, shooting butts and trapping sites, it’s a wonder anything makes it through this curtain.

Clearly and mercifully some of course do and despite the ever present tension on the island when out watching birds and marvelling at the miracle and spectacle of bird migration, when you could find yourself potentially witnessing untold slaughter, watching mass movement of birds of prey, many of them rare species back home in Blighty like marsh harriers, honey buzzards and ospreys too, lifts the spirits and warms the heart.

 99 per cent of an Osprey’s diet is fish. Sometimes migrating Ospreys are even
seen fishing at Salina or Ghadira Nature Reserve. In 2010 a bird from Germany
was recovered at Salina after it was shot.

I’m proud to be here, helping Bird Life Malta striving to end the archaic 18th Century practice of raptor persecution, against unbelievably difficult odds and in so doing help EU member Malta, and as such cosignatory to the EU Birds Directive, play by the rules like the rest of us have to do, and join the 21st Century.

There are of course perfectly legitimate hunters hunting legal prey species, but the illegal fringe of hunting, slaughtering protected species demeans those law-abiding hunters and brings an element shame upon the rest and the wider Maltese people. Protected bird species too should be granted free and safe passage through Malta. Come on Malta, move on.

Read about Ospreys in Malta on the Birdwatching in Malta website