I had resolved never to visit Malta.
I boycotted it because of the notorious bird massacres there each spring and autumn. Thirty-five percent of the country’s GDP comes from tourism, so refusing to visit was pressure for change. Now, the Maltese constitutional court has decided that a national referendum on spring hunting can be held.
The ruling has been welcomed by BirdLife Malta, which has fought a bitter, and occasionally dangerous, battle with the hunters. Polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Maltese are on the side of the birds, so a favourable outcome seems certain.
Can eco-tourists now sample the delights of Malta without feeling guilty? It’s a moral fig-leaf, perhaps, but, as Pope Francis said in another context, ‘who am I to judge?’
Malta is the largest of three islands, 93km south of Sicily and 288km from the Tunisian coast. Their combined area is 316km2, one third that of Co Louth.
Because the islands are situated on one of the Mediterranean’s main crossing points, millions of birds stop off there for rest and recreation on their journeys between Europe and Africa. Shooting them is a working-class and peasant tradition in Malta; gunmen lie in wait for the birds, killing everything in sight.
There are 12,000 licensed hunters among the country’s 423,000 inhabitants. In addition, up to 1,200 trapping licenses have been issued.
The trappers hide in makeshift huts erected along the coast and in valleys, using tethered captive birds to lure wild ones into nets and traps.
Malta joined the European Union in 2004, agreeing to comply with the Birds Directive. This forbids trapping, but allows the taking of designated game and pest species.
Complying with the directive soon became a political hot potato. The dispute had a class dimension; foreigners and middle-class urbanites, it was alleged, were oppressing rural dwellers and the less well-off.
The government, at first, exempted itself from some of the directive’s provisions but, in 2008, the European Court ruled that Malta must end spring hunting.
A test-case before the European Court of Justice, the following year, went against the country.
A loophole in the ruling, however, allowed limited taking of birds and, in 2012, political pressure forced the government to permit the trapping of song thrushes and golden plovers. Enforcement of Malta’s game regulations is notoriously weak.
With more than 400 species, the country’s ‘bird list’ is the same size as Ireland’s. Due to the slaughter, however, only 21 species breed regularly, while a further 17 do so occasionally. The only birdsong most Maltese ever hear comes from trapped finches kept in household cages.
When the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, gifted Malta to the Knights of St. John, in 1530, he stipulated that a symbolic rent be paid in falcons.
Alas, thanks to the hunters, the famous Maltese falcon can no longer be found.
Twelve falcon species have been recorded on the islands, but only one, the kestrel, breeds and it does so rarely.
The emperor’s bird may have been the peregrine. The species bred on the islands until, according to BirdLife Malta, it was ‘extirpated’. Eleonora’s falcon is another possible candidate for the royal distinction.
This, one of the few birds of prey to fly about in flocks, is a spectacular creature, known to any birdwatcher who has visited Majorca. It behaves rather like the Maltese hunters do, targeting migrating birds on Mediterranean islands.
The prey is most abundant in autumn, when the numbers heading to Africa are swelled by young of the year.
The falcons postpone egg-laying until the end of July; their chicks will be in the nest in September, when migrants are passing through and food supplies are most abundant.
Malta should be the ideal location for Eleonora’s falcons but, due to persecution, they occur only accidentally.
The plebiscite on bird hunting is to take place this spring and the result, it’s hoped, will be legally binding.
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