This year’s spring hunting season confirms that once again this year we had a situation where hunting illegalities were on the rise whilst enforcement was at an all-time low. Apart from the fact that the moratorium on the hunting of Turtle Dove was not respected by many, more protected birds were also shot after the closure of the spring hunting season.
A total of 15 known shot protected birds were retrieved during the 2017 spring hunting season which ran between the 26th of March and the 14th of April. Thirteen of these were recovered by BirdLife Malta alone, one was recovered by the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), and the other by the police. This is a very high number compared to the previous two spring hunting seasons when two shot birds were recovered by BirdLife Malta during 2015 alone and another two in 2016. By the Wild Birds Regulation Unit’s (WBRU) own admission, this means that 10% of all the birds known to have been shot during the 2017 spring hunting season (15 out of 145) were illegally targeted protected birds, based on the fact that hunters declared 130 Quails caught during the hunting season.
More worringly than this is the fact that hunting has continued illegally after the end of the spring hunting season, in particular on Turtle Doves, despite the moratorium in place this year. Up until today, a further five shot protected birds have been recovered, pushing the total of known illegally shot protected birds this spring up to 20. Sadly, only four of all these birds survived.
Due to the different circumstances this year, BirdLife Malta’s annual Spring Watch started after the closure of the hunting season and ran into the first days of May. Between the 16th of April and the 3rd of May our teams recorded shots fired in various locations in Malta and Gozo on a daily basis. Close to 1,000 shots fired during the closed season were counted in this period by an average of four teams per day. Hunters have also been recorded donning masks to hide their identity in various areas, specifically when targeting Turtle Doves during their peak migration.
In view that the Spring Watch only monitors a fraction of our countryside, it seems that there was no respect to the moratorium in force at all since Turtle Doves continued to be targeted as if the season was still open and hunting was permitted for this species too.
As regards to police presence in the field, this was weak after the closure of the season too, with the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) not being in the field at all in some days due to EU Presidency commitments, leaving matters to district police. For example, on one particular day (28th April), ALE officers were completely taken up for a foreign affairs ministerial meeting at Valletta, leaving the countryside unaccounted for during the peak migration for Turtle Dove.
Testimony of the lack of police initiative in the field is the fact that this spring we only had two known illegal hunting cases that ended up in court – the first of which was that of the hunter who was caught on camera by BirdLife Malta the day before the end of the season shooting down a protected Stone Curlew at Mellieħa. It was thanks to the video evidence filmed by BirdLife Malta that the hunter was fined €5,000 and had his hunting licence suspended for life while his shotgun was also confiscated.
The second case was that of the 1st of May, where a hunter who was filmed by BirdLife Malta shooting a Turtle Dove with a stolen gun during the closed season was apprehended by police and taken to court. He was fined €2,000 and lost his hunting licence for two years.
Whilst enforcement was at an all-time low, this shameful year will also be remembered for the involvement of police officers in wildlife crime incidents in particular hunting cases. A case in point was a recent report by the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) where they filmed a poacher hunting together with a police constable who sat with him for at least an hour, spotting passing birds for him and helping him to adjust his binoculars – all during the closed season.
Gozitan police officers are also being investigated by the internal investigating unit of the Malta Police Force in relation to the well documented incident in which British naturalist and TV personality Chris Packham was involved in a few weeks ago in Gozo. Packham was acquitted from an assault and trespassing charge when it was he who was confronted by two trappers. A bird aviary that had raised suspicion of containing illegally caught birds by the trappers also seemed to have been emptied by the time WBRU officials arrived after a police report was filed.
BirdLife Malta can today reveal that to add insult to injury, one of the police officers who attended and even aggressively threatened Chris Packham on the day was himself a hunter. The other hails from the same village of one of the trappers. Moreover, in court, police testified falsely against Packham and against BirdLife Malta’s Conservation Manager Nicholas Barbara.
The situation, in fact, is particularly worrying in Gozo. Whilst some of the Gozitan police are hunters themselves, at the same time they are expected to patrol the hunting season, the reality being that the police are normally only reactive taking hardly any proactive measures to ensure that hunting regulations are observed.
The WBRU has also proven to be unresponsive, with officers in this case not being able to respond in real time, and only springing into action when BirdLife Malta enquired why they were suggesting an on-site visit three days later.
All this points to the need for the setting up of a professional and permanently responsive Wildlife Crime Unit which would be independent and totally dedicated to wildlife crime, without it being influenced politically or taken up by other major events in the country. Only this would deliver the true commitment needed for the conservation of wild birds such as in the case of the vulnerable Turtle Dove.
Read the Maltese version of the press release here.
You can also click here to watch a video about illegal hunting in Malta during spring 2017 (the video can also be watched below). Another video which can be seen here shows one of the casualties of illegal hunting after the season closure.