They were three rainy days, but that did not at all put off hundreds of people from visiting Rutland Water Reserve in the UK during this year’s UK Birdfair which was held between Friday 19th and Sunday 21st August. It was my first experience abroad on official business with BirdLife Malta since I was employed as Communications Manager and also my first experience at the Birdfair. And truly a memorable one at that…an experience which one does not easily forget!
I must admit, I did not expect to witness such a turnout and I did not expect, either, to see so much enthusiasm amongst the hundreds that filled the marquees everyday to eagerly discover what each country, company, organisation, birding tour travel agency or NGO had to offer. No wonder it is called the ‘Glastonbury of birding’!
BirdLife Malta was in Stand 12 in Marquee No 7, next to some other well-known charities, putting us in a privileged position to welcome many visitors.
Amongst them were some familiar faces which, I was told, we meet every year along with several new ones who also wanted to show their support for the work we do with donations for our next study to learn more about and protect the Turtle Dove.
This year’s key message for our stand was one of thanks for the support we recieved through the years from the British people to limit and reduce illegal hunting in Malta, to run an annual nationwide school education programme, to study seabirds and secure marine protected areas, and to manage our nature reserves.
As donations kept coming in, many decided to take up a number of special offers which we decided to launch at the 2016 Birdfair to encourage people to enrol as members. We had a good number of new members signing up together with a bigger number of renewals – as traditionally some of our overseas members leave it for the Birdfair every year to come and visit us whilst renewing their annual membership. The special limited edition Scopoli’s Shearwater pin badge was quite a hit this year, with many stopping at the stand purposely to purchase this unique collector’s item. Even the stickers we printed specifically for the Birdfair which read ‘I helped BirdLife Malta’ quickly went out of stock, as well as being praised by one of the top officials of BirdLife International during the welcome reception.
We also organised a raffle which proved to be a great success over the three days of the fair, the prize for which was our latest publication “History of Ornithology in Malta” by Joe Sultana and John J Borg. BirdLife Malta founder member Joe Sultana, one of the authors of the book and a veteran ornithologist in our islands was present at this year’s Birdfair too.
Many of these visitors kept asking about the latest developments in Malta, with a particular interest in the moratorium announced by the Government on spring hunting of the Turtle Dove during next year’s season. Many also seemed interested in BirdLife Malta’s education efforts to inspire the young generation and the general public on not only environmental conservation, but also on the success of our latest seabird study which led to the establishment of the first eight marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the Maltese Islands. Our nature reserves – Għadira, Simar and Foresta 2000 – and the bird which can be found in them were the subject of keen interest from our visitors.
With autumn migration nearing closer, we also had many visitors sharing their experiences from previous visits to Malta for Raptor Camp and others who showed interest in joining future ones. All in all, our work to protect migratory birds seems to be inspiring people not to boycott Malta anymore because of the shooting and to instead come and observe the beautiful birds of prey and also give us a hand in making the skies safe for them.
Saturday was a special day for BirdLife Malta when well-known naturalist, campaigner and TV personality Chris Packham presented a donation to us and also visited our stand. At the end of a live interview in the events marquee, Packham heaped praise on our NGO and showed a video clip about Malta.
He then invited BirdLife Malta’s CEO Mark Sultana to join him on stage and give an update about the recent developments in Malta related to spring hunting. Another high profile visit we had on Saturday was by BirdLife International CEO Patricia Zurita who spent some time meeting the team.
Though the stand kept us busy, myself and the other members of the team – CEO Mark Sultana, Conservation Manager Nicholas Barbara and Events Coordinator Yanka Milusheva managed to find some time to visit the birdwatching centre at Rutland where we could admire the ‘special guest’ of Rutland Water Reserve, the mighty Osprey, together with other species, several of which do not occur in Malta.
On our last day in the UK we also visited the beautiful city of Cambridge – a stone’s throw away from the Birdfair site – where we were given a tour of the David Attenborough Building, a centre for biodiversity conservation in the centre of Cambridge named in honour of Sir David’s pioneering work in bringing the wonders of our natural world to our screens. This iconic building houses the headquarters of BirdLife International and some offices of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) where we also had some meetings.
This year’s participation in the Birdfair was made possible thanks to the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) who sponsored our stand and the visit of four of our staff members to the UK. In fact during the time we spent in the UK, we distributed freebies provided to us by MTA to promote Malta, as well as decorating part of our stand with large beautiful pictures of the Maltese Islands, drawing in many questions about how to find the right deals for a holiday in the Maltese Islands!
An estimated 20,000 people visit the Birdfair every year and this year’s event had a record number of 450 exhibitors from 78 countries. So, all in all, apart from generating much needed funds, the 2016 Birdfair served as a good opportunity for BirdLife Malta to showcase what we are doing to conserve birds and their habitats in Malta. We will continue to make use of opportunities like this to create awareness, engage people and encourage them to support us in this mission, be it in Malta or abroad.
Apart from thanking all those who visited us at the Birdfair, a word of special thanks must also go to our volunteers in the UK who travelled miles to come and give us a helping hand in manning the stand during the three days of the fair – thank you all!
By Nathaniel Attard, BirdLife Malta Communications Manager