[WATCH] Keeping watch on Maltese hunters, from the break of dawn

Every morning, BirdLife officials patrol popular hunting spots, searching for and recording illegal hunting activity

5am: BirdLife conservationists are off the beaten path at the edge of valleys with dense vegetation where hunters this year can only shoot for quail
5am: BirdLife conservationists are off the beaten path at the edge of valleys with dense vegetation where hunters this year can only shoot for quail
Keeping watch on Maltese hunters, from the break of dawn

Illegal hunting persists in Malta despite a moratorium on the killing of turtle dove now running for the second year, conservationists BirdLife say.

Out in the countryside at 5am, wildlife conservation manager Nick Barbara and a colleague are patrolling the Ta’ Santi area in Mgarr as part of their Springwatch patrol, where a number of teams perform daily stakeouts and patrol popular hunting spots in a bid to deter illegal hunting activity.

Since the start of the year, BirdLife has recorded 26 illegally shot birds, with fears that the real number could be significantly higher.

With teams of three for each patrol, the Springwatch units are positioned around the island’s countryside and hunting hotspots every day of the week during the season, equipped with cameras and binoculars.

Barbara says illegalities are witnessed or reported practically every day. “Despite hunters only being legally permitted to catch quail during the spring hunting season, the fact that the season coincides with peak turtle dove migration means that turtle doves are likely to be killed anyway.”

Nick Barbara during one of the patrols
Nick Barbara during one of the patrols

The teams meet at a specific location in the early hours of the morning, where they plan and strategise their patrols. Barbara, one of the team leaders, points out the video cameras used to record illegalities, usually coming in the form of modified shotguns, illegal bird traps and other banned methods of hunting. Special telescopes are used to observe illegal activity from a distance.

The first location his team visits is Ta’ Santi, limits of Mgarr, a popular hunting area due to its dense vegetation, which makes it perfect for hunting quail.

The team also visits the Ghajn Rihana valley, whose wide characteristics make it ideal for birds to shelter and nest. It is here that the team witnessed a turtle dove being shot out of the sky. The bird fell into private property, preventing the team from being able to retrieve it. A van was seen driving away from the scene shortly afterwards.

While footage of the van was not recorded, the suspected hunter’s registration number was recorded, and the location logged for future reference.

One of the hunting hotspots in the early hours of the morning
One of the hunting hotspots in the early hours of the morning

Bidnija is the last location patrolled by the team. No illegal shooting here is noticed, however an illegal turtle dove trapping case is seen on the other side of the valley, with two hunters waiting in a hide.

At the end of their patrols, the teams return to the BirdLife headquarters to log all the data collected. Other teams out in the field on the same day spotted one hunter using a modified shotgun which could be heard firing more than three shots in a single burst. They also spotted a marsh harrier with clipped wings, indicating that it had been shot.

“We need a specialised wildlife crime unit within the police force that can properly patrol the countryside in search of any illegal activity. If the country had a proper wildlife crime unit, illegalities would see a sharp decline, as they could take immediate action,” Barbara says. 

Despite patrolling and reporting illegal activity, BirdLife officials cannot enter private property or perform spot-checks, in the same way the police can, meaning hunters who spot them after shooting or catching protected birds can easily flee the scene if the police are not on site. 

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