There are times when the return of our summer migrants seems all the more remarkable. Not only have these birds completed journeys that have taken them over thousands of kilometres, but many have run the gauntlet of the sporting guns that await their passage as they cross North Africa and enter southern Europe. Each spring and autumn, thousands of birds are slaughtered despite the protection and legislation put in place to protect them.
It is not hard to find figures that put some sense of scale to the slaughter that is taking place. On Malta, where BirdLife Malta and teams of volunteers from the UK have been documenting the slaughter, it has been estimated that there may be in excess of 10,000 hunters active during the spring migration period. Malta, like other Mediterranean islands is well-used by migrant birds making the sea crossing. Last year, birds of at least 24 protected species were shot illegally. Among these were swallows and cuckoos, two species that we regard as heralds of our summer.
This hunting is not the taking of birds for the pot – although quail and turtle doves can be taken legally for this purpose – but instead the birds are stuffed and then exhibited as trophies, testament to the brutality rather than skill of the hunters. The hunting continues despite the Maltese Government being found guilt by the European Court of Justice of violating the EU Birds Directive. It seems it might be an issue that the European Commission has lost the will to prosecute and one that we and our fellow European citizens seem slow to grasp. If we really care about our summer migrants then we should speak out against this bloody slaughter.
Just last week the naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, together with friends, spent time in Malta documenting the illegal hunting of spring migrants. The resulting films, work done independent of the BBC, were posted on YouTube. There is a growing sense that it is birdwatchers from elsewhere across Europe who might make the difference, increasing the pressure on the Maltese government and on the European ministers responsible for enforcing the legislation. A cultural shift is needed within Malta if Europe’s migrant birds are to be freed from the threat of slaughter.