Killing joy | Bill Oddie

British TV personality Bill Oddie may be a comedian by vocation, but he admits he sees very little to smile about in the result of Malta’s spring hunting referendum

Bill Oddie: “We all accept that there were various stages in whatever country’s history when hunting for food was necessary. In some parts of the world it might be for skins to keep warm. But the idea of killing a wild thing which is beautiful in its own right, just for the sake of it… that’s different.”
Bill Oddie: “We all accept that there were various stages in whatever country’s history when hunting for food was necessary. In some parts of the world it might be for skins to keep warm. But the idea of killing a wild thing which is beautiful in its own right, just for the sake of it… that’s different.”

If last week’s referendum failed to put a stop to spring hunting, at least it did serve to raise general local awareness of the spectacular phenomenon of bird migration over Malta. 

In recent weeks, facts and figures about Maltese avifauna flew about in all directions, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single individual who has never heard of a Coturnix coturnix or a Streptopelia turtur as a result. On a per capita level, it is probably no exaggeration to say that the Maltese are now collectively the single most knowledgeable nation in the world on the subject of birds. 

One of the things we have learnt about migratory birds is that they are by no means the only visitors in spring and autumn. Our bi-annual migration seasons also attract a growing number of wildlife conservation activists each year. One of the more recently-observed of these springtime migrants is 73-year-old British comedian and author (and television presenter, and songwriter, and ornithologist, etc.) Bill Oddie… whom some of us might remember as one third of ‘The Goodies’, the comic trio that bequeathed to the world such unforgettable musical moments as ‘The Funky Gibbon’ in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, just as our knowledge of springtime migrant visitors has grown, so too has international knowledge of the ongoing controversy that is spring hunting in Malta. Oddie himself may only be a recent visitor to Malta – this was his second trip here – but he has monitored the situation from afar for the better part of 40 years.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think there’s anyone who cares about wildlife and birds who hasn’t known about Malta’s reputation for a very, very long time,” he tells me as we settle down for this interview. “I remember how, years and years ago, I was with a bunch of birdwatchers considering where to go in Europe and around the Mediterranean. Everybody said, ‘don’t go to Malta, because they just kill everything there’. Malta has had that image for years. So there’s nothing new there.…”

His voice tails off to almost a sigh. The bitterness of his disappointment at the referendum result is evident even in his tone of voice. 

In an attempt to cheer him up, I invite him to consider the arguments regularly brought forward by Maltese hunters over the past few weeks. Spring hunting may have been legally retained, but the level of law enforcement has increased (at least since the 1980s, when there wasn’t even a wildlife protection law to enforce), and that therefore the situation is actually improving despite the referendum setback.

“I’ve heard the same thing, but I can’t claim to have witnessed any evidence for it myself. But even if it were true, and most of the hunters really do stick by the rules, it doesn’t take many people who don’t stick by the rules to ruin it for the rest. I would have hoped that the hunters, among themselves, would know who these people are, and would be very angry at them for ruining their reputation…”

Another sigh. “But the question which also has to be asked – and amazingly, it doesn’t seem to be – is about what’s legal, not what’s illegal. The rule which allows people to shoot quail and turtle doves in spring is in itself absolutely absurd. It was pushed through by what they call a ‘derogation’. God knows how. It smacks of strange bribery and favours, because the numbers of turtle dove in particular are plummeting all the time. I have discussed this with hunters in Malta, and they keep insisting that it’s not their fault. They argue that the populations are dwindling because of conditions in Africa or Northern Europe. That’s also true: nobody denies that. But if you’re also going to shoot them in spring… well, you might as well hammer the last nail into their coffin.”

Mention of the derogation inevitably reminds us of the role politics has played in the spring hunting issue over the years. Both Malta’s main political parties promised to represent the hunters’ interests as part of their own platforms – EU accession or ‘Partnership’, depending who won – and as a result there has been broad political consensus that Malta should be permitted to kill birds in spring. And political influence seems to affect hunting issues in other countries, too. Bill Oddie has campaigned against hunting in many parts of the world, not just Malta. Does he himself see any correlation between hunting and politics on a global level? 

“Massive,” comes the instant reply. “Yes, absolutely, I see it everywhere I go. I’m quite happy to include Britain in that, by the way. Our major issue at the moment is the shooting industry in Britain. It may not seem, on the face of it, to be as bad as shooting migratory birds… but a lot of us think it’s even worse. They breed birds, particularly pheasants and partridge, purely for shooting. And there is no question whatsoever that this is supported by a certain and number of politicians… and a certain type of politician, if it comes to that. Quite a lot of them have country estates, or have friends who go shooting. The Tory government is trying to bring back some forms of hunting that have been banned. But I’ve seen the same pattern in many countries all around the world – from Malaysia, where I went I couple of years ago, to Armenia, where I was last year. People are doing really brave things to save their wildlife, and time and time again you come up against the ‘rich hunter syndrome’…”

Oddie however concedes that the situation in Malta does not entirely match the usual pattern. 

“At least in Malta, you can say that hunting is a widespread thing. It’s not just rich people, I accept that. But in a way it makes it more difficult, because you feel like you’re giving a hard time to people who really could do with some kind of pastime…”

The link between power and hunting, he adds, is most visible in countries where hunting is also big business.  

“In a lot of the countries where it’s all to do with big game animals, for example, you get oligarchs coming over from Russia with helicopters – literally – landing on top of the Caucasian mountains and shooting leopards. There seems to be some connection between people in power, and enjoying going out killing animals and birds. And probably there always has been…”

At the same time, you don’t have to shoot a leopard or a rhino to be accused of animal cruelty. We heard this argument throughout the referendum campaign. Hunters (in Malta and elsewhere) consistently accuse wildlife activists of hypocrisy: the same people who shriek in horror at the killing of a bird very often have no qualms about eating turkey at Christmas (or quail on a TV programme), or wearing leather, and so on...  

Oddie however dismisses this point as “part of a dossier of arguments that always crop up when people who are in favour of shooting come across people who aren’t.” It seems he got his fair share of it in Malta himself.

“Unbelievably, we had one evening in the hotel – I won’t mention the hotel by name, because it was delightful except for this one incident – when a group of birdwatchers I was with were talking in one corner in the lobby. Suddenly the receptionist started haranguing us. I don’t think his boss would have been very pleased. ‘Why don’t you go home, we hate the British coming here and telling us what to do’, and so on. Then he said: ‘I don’t come to your country and protest about the Grand National…’”

Bill Oddie breaks into a laugh. “To which, naturally, I said: ‘Well, you can… you’re very welcome to… we’re against it too…”

As for the hypocrisy argument, Oddie retorts that there is a difference between killing for sustenance and killing for fun.

“We all accept that there were various stages in whatever country’s history when hunting for food was necessary. In some parts of the world it might be for skins to keep warm. But the idea of killing a wild thing which is beautiful in its own right, just for the sake of it… that’s different.”

There is meanwhile another argument to justify spring hunting: that it should be retained for its entertainment value alone. We’ve all heard hunters argue that, deprived of their two weeks of shooting in April, they would fall into depression and possibly even become suicidal. This was even the substance of an official campaign statement by the FKNK.

Oddie is himself an entertainer, and it is public knowledge that (like many entertainers) he suffers from occasional bouts of depression himself. In fact he campaigns for awareness of mental health issues, too, especially with British charity Bipolar UK. 

Surely, then, he would surely appreciate the value of entertainment as a possible therapy for depression. How would he respond to an argument like that?

“I can certainly understand the argument – yes, I suffered from depression myself, and you can definitely say that part of that was brought on by witnessing all the horrible things that go on. I always have been a wildlife lover; I absolutely wouldn’t dream of going out and shooting something just for pleasure. But if the price of your so-called sanity is to actually blast the living daylights out of something as beautiful as a migratory bird – something miraculous, in my view; something that should almost be, if not worshipped, at least vastly appreciated and enjoyed… you will get depressed one way or another. You’re killing joy…” 

He adds that it is actually hunting, and not the lack of it, that causes depression. “I have to admit this happened a couple of times when I was in Malta. Looking at hunters, out in the field at around four in the morning, when there are no birds around… you’ll see them standing about, staring into space… I’ve actually thought, these people are depressed. It doesn’t look joyous. There’s something really lonely and sad about it. And it doesn’t surprise me, either. I think that, if your happiness is going to depend on killing things, then it’s going to come back at you at one stage or another.” 

Still on the subject of depression, Oddie himself described the referendum result as a “pretty depressing comment about humanity.” From his experience over the years, would he say that the situation facing wildlife on a global – with particular regard to hunting – has deteriorated? 

He replies that it’s never been as bad as today. “The situation in Malta is concentrated in a way that you won’t see anywhere else. But the situation in other countries is getting worse, too. The actual number of birds being killed, of different species and in different places, is getting massive. Cyprus is another example. I have been there several times. There was a referendum there, too, and they had banned spring shooting in the 1970s. But now it’s crept back in, and the situation is completely out of hand. It’s worse than ever. If I had to say, where can we save most birds by stopping hunting in one country, I would probably have to go for Cyprus. Although I’m told that Egypt, Lebanon and other countries in the region are appalling, too. There is still quite a lot of hunting that goes on in Italy, France, Spain and so on. It’s absolutely rife. And an awful lot of it is happening around the Mediterranean…” 

The referendum result also means there will be a lot more of it in future. This naturally raises the question: what does one do now? What advice would Oddie give to other activists, or even just concerned individuals, on how to keep up the resistance in the face of this setback?

“I do get asked this question a lot, especially by people who want to know how they can help as individuals. What I will say is that the NGOs involved in the preservation of wildlife – Birdlife Malta and CABS in particular – do need observers to be in Malta during this season. There is a lot of camaraderie, a lot of… well, it’s bit of a hippie thing to say, but there is quite a lot of love in these organisations. They’re nice, well-meaning people. But they need all the help they can get. So I’ll be saying to people in Britain is that: if you want to be of use, and volunteer… Malta is going to continue shooting birds in spring. Volunteers are needed. The NGOs depend on them. And it’s not an extremist thing. Absolutely not. Sometimes people are a bit scared of the word ‘activist’. But it’s not extremist at all. It’s positively homely. To put it simply, I think that working with and for animals and wildlife brings out the best in people. But it also brings out in the worst, in the sense that you will see depressing things.”

One course of action Oddie won’t be advocating, however, is a boycott of Malta as a tourist destination (as some, especially in the UK, have proposed). 

“I don’t agree with it at all. I know for a fact that none of us in NGO areas would support a boycott. It just doesn’t work. All it does is create a fuss, but it never works. It didn’t work in Cyprus in the 1970s. Apart from anything else, a lot of British people who go to Malta for are... how can I put this? Half of them probably haven’t even noticed yet. They’re not the type who go to a country to see birds, and they’re not the type of people who would follow a boycott, either.”

As he speaks it is hard not to detect a distinct change of tone when talking about birds in general (as opposed to their slaughter). Just a few moments earlier, he described migratory birds as ‘to be (almost) worshipped’. And when talking about birds in general, Oddie seems to automatically become more chirpy himself. It is as though there is something uplifting, almost spiritual, about the subject...

“In a sense, there is. To me, killing migratory birds is a sacrilege. An absolute sacrilege… speaking of which, I want to see more action from the Church. I know that the Archbishop in Malta made an excellent appearance in the debate… and when I saw that, I said: great, that’s fantastic. Now off you go, and get the Pope over here to say the same thing. In fact it was a bit of a running joke among birdwatchers in Malta this year. We kept asking, where’s the Pope? When’s Pope Francis coming? Because he could make a great difference…”

A joke it may be, but there is a serious side to it. Some years back, Oddie had in fact petitioned Pope John Paul II to make bird-killing a mortal sin. He never got an answer from the Vatican, but still awaits one in (not exactly joyful) hope. 

“In all seriousness, I do believe that if there was an edict saying that gratuitous slaughter of wildlife is not acceptable, it would make a huge difference. And it shouldn’t be acceptable… religiously, it shouldn’t be. I am not a religious person, but looking at it from a religious perspective, it is nothing more than the wanton destruction of one of the greatest miracles on earth. Bird migration….”

Are his efforts to rope in the Vatican still ongoing?

“Not from my end, but we did have a bloke with us in Malta this time from a British Roman Catholic organization called ‘Catholics for Wildlife’. I know he is desperately trying to get some kind of audience with the Pope, but as far as I know he hasn’t succeeded yet. Hence our constant banter about the Pope coming to Malta…”

Oddie however acknowledges that hope hasn’t fully deserted him yet. “The signs are good for this particular pope, I would say. He’s called himself Francis after Francis of Assisi, which isn’t bad going. So one presumes he’s pro-birds…”