An open hunting season on the red-listed Turtle Dove

May 17, 2019 11:43 am

* Choice of dates for the season augmented by increase in hunting licences, lowest ever police presence
* Half of the illegal hunting casualties recovered during the spring hunting season were Turtle Doves
* Hunting illegalities so far in 2019 already at record levels, surpassing last year’s figures for the same period
* BirdLife Malta issues video documenting illegalities observed during this year’s Spring Watch camp
* Findings from this year’s spring hunting season will be reported to the European Commission

As widely anticipated by BirdLife Malta, this year’s spring hunting season resulted in a massacre of protected Turtle Doves and practically an open hunting season on the red-listed Turtle Dove.

The season’s dates between the 10th and the 30th of April were a deliberate choice by the government to coincide with peak Turtle Dove migration, in spite of the fact that Quail was supposedly the only legally huntable species. This shift in dates was not based on any migration studies but was implemented solely to satisfy the hunting lobby’s request to lift the moratorium on hunting of Turtle Dove, despite the species still being classified as vulnerable to extinction.

The first shot Turtle Dove of the spring hunting season recovered from Madliena on 17th April 2019 (Photo by BirdLife Malta)

The wrong choice of dates for this smokescreen season is clearly evidenced by the fact that half of the illegally shot protected birds recovered by BirdLife Malta during the period of the spring hunting season were Turtle Doves. That such a choice of dates went in favour of the hunting lobby’s request has been confirmed by an increase in hunters interested in registering for the season, with 816 more licences in spring 2019 compared to spring 2018. Despite a total of 7,570 hunters out during the three-week-season, the majority failed to register even catching a single Quail, the only bird that could be hunted during the period.

BirdLife Malta’s observations in the field point also to a season characterised by the lowest ever enforcement levels in the past years. Despite the requirement to field seven police officers for every 1,000 hunters BirdLife Malta noticed an average presence of police during just 13.8% of the times its teams were in the field in hunting locations where peak activity would be expected. This is a stark decline compared to the same data BirdLife Malta collected during the 2018 hunting season, where the police were seen during peak hunting hours 60.4% of the time we had teams in the field.

The situation was observed to be even worse on the island of Gozo, where throughout a week of operations, not a single police unit was seen actively patrolling the countryside despite the island being a popular destination with Maltese hunters for Turtle Dove hunting. Enforcement of the spring hunting season on Gozo still relies on District Police, given that Malta’s Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) unit is not allowed to extend its operations on the island.

Monitoring of this year’s spring hunting season was carried out during BirdLife Malta’s annual Spring Watch camp which covered two of the three weeks of the hunting season.  A total of 92 illegal hunting incidents were recorded over a period of just two weeks during which a total of 28 volunteers in four teams covered 58 different hunting hotspots across Malta and Gozo. Overall camp results clearly show that most hunters were targeting Turtle Doves, with footage being made public today showing hunters filmed static in hides and others actively pursuing and shooting down Turtle Doves in the field. The illegalities observed, summarised below, also include the use of modified shotguns capable of firing more than three rounds, and the use of illegal electronic callers:

  • 73% of the incidents concerning shooting at protected birds (not Quail) involved the targeting of Turtle Doves
  • Half the number of illegally shot protected birds recovered by BirdLife Malta throughout the season were Turtle Doves
  • During the days of the season BirdLife Malta recovered just one legally shot Quail, compared to six illegally shot Turtle Doves
  • Amongst other illegal hunting casualties received were highly-protected species such as Eurasian Hoopoe and Eurasian Stone Curlew and several birds of prey such as Common Kestrel, Marsh Harrier and Montagu’s Harrier
  • With these figures, hunting illegalities so far for 2019 are already at record levels: the total of 41 known shot protected birds recovered to date has already surpassed last year’s figures for the same period (38).
The illegal hunting casualties recovered by BirdLife Malta during this year’s spring hunting season – half of them were Turtle Doves

The only known hunting incident resulting in police taking any action this season was thanks to BirdLife Malta at Miżieb where a hunter was found in possession of a shot Turtle Dove and Golden Oriole. Days later, the same person was observed still hunting before he fled the scene when approached by police and was later arrested together with his informant who tipped him off to escape.

While BirdLife Malta has filed enquiries with police to ask about any other charges pressed, we are not aware of more illegal Turtle Dove hunting incidents being brought to justice. This adds insult to injury to last year’s situation when the one single hunter reported – FKNK official Lawrence Vella – has still not been prosecuted in court. Vella was filmed illegally hunting for Turtle Dove also at the hunting lobby’s claimed hunting reserve of Miżieb last year, and was still eligible to obtain a hunting licence this spring during peak Turtle Dove migration, given his case was still not heard at the law courts.

All this points to a repeat situation of having Quail as being the only huntable species albeit only on paper, contrasted with a nonchalant attitude towards Turtle Dove hunting, and with enforcement and prosecutions lacking the strict supervision required for the application of the derogation.

Commenting on this year’s spring hunting season, BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana stated: “BirdLife Malta reiterates that unless the government starts basing its environmental decisions on scientific data and not on political will, these illegalities will continue occurring under its responsibility. We also remain adamant that a proper enforcement unit on wildlife crime within the police force is established since we deem this as crucial to solve this problem. We hope the European Commission realises that spring hunting seasons in Malta have been designed for Turtle Dove hunting and stops this charade once and for all.”

BirdLife Malta Conservation Manager Nicholas Barbara stated: “BirdLife Malta will be reporting the findings and results from this year’s spring hunting season to the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General asking for the derogation to be revisited given the loopholes the Maltese Government has utilised to open a Turtle Dove hunting season under the guise of a Quail hunting season. We will remind the Commission that hunters are able to hunt Quail in adequate numbers during the autumn hunting season. We also call on the Commission to step up its call to implement a Europe-wide moratorium guaranteeing the protection of Turtle Dove also during the autumn migration period, in order to tackle in a holistic manner the bird’s decline across the European continent”.

Read the Maltese version of the press release here. Click here to watch the video edit summarising the illegal hunting incidents observed during the 2019 spring hunting season on YouTube.