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Postcards from Malta: hunters, what they can and can’t do!

The Birdlife Malta Spring and Raptor Camps take place to address wildlife crime. The field teams’ have three objectives:

  1. To record wildlife crime data and gather evidence – video, photos, audio.
  2. To deter wildlife crime.
  3. To directly protect rarities, large roosts, and generally individuals or species of conservation or special concern (some hunters target ‘special’ birds).

Whilst doing these three things you (the monitor) have to remember the rules of hunting, you have to be able to Recognise a crime, so you can Record a crime and Ultimately Report a crime.

First of all the hunting season, for this current year, runs from 1st September 2019 to 31st January 2020, during that time the following apply:

  • 40 bird species from land and 12 species at sea may be hunted. All other species are protected by national and international law.
  • It is illegal to hunt or possess a firearm or trapping equipment in a Bird Sanctuary.
  • It is illegal to carry a firearm between two hours before sunrise and 19:00 hours or two hours after sunset dependent on time of year.
  • It is illegal to use electronic callers.
  • It is illegal to hunt at sea before 1st of October and within 3km of the shoreline.
  • It is illegal to have a shotgun capable of firing more than three shots in succession.
  • It is illegal to hunt within 50m of a main road.
  • It is illegal to hunt within 50m of a beach.
  • It is illegal to hunt within 200m of a residential area >100 people.
  • It is illegal to hunt under the legal age of 18.
  • On Sundays and public holidays, hunting is not allowed after 13:00 until 2 hours before sunrise the following day.

BirdLife Malta always need more volunteers for Camps. Being there makes a difference. If you’d like to know more go to https://birdlifemalta.org/get-involved/volunteer/

If you’d like to help but can’t volunteer visit https://birdlifemalta.org/donate/

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a little about my time on Malta this autumn. See you next Spring?

Shotgun Shell
Don’t even get me started on littering!

Postcards from Malta: ups and downs

We often get to see the sun rise and set!

But who makes up the ‘we’?

For obvious reasons, I’m not going to tell you how many volunteers there are or how many teams go out to monitor the migrating birds and sedentary hunters. But as I write this the following nationalities are represented by at least one volunteer:

Austria, Australia, Croatia, England, Holland, Malta and New Zealand!

In the past, volunteers from Denmark, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany, Finland, Italy have helped in the battle against wildlife crime. It doesn’t matter what age or sex you are, your religion (if any), your sexual orientation; it does matter that you care about wildlife crime and want to make a difference.

We stay in an hotel – some sharing rooms, some like me don’t (I need to have my own own space, it helps to process the day’s events, to deal with the pain, the frustration, the joy, the satisfaction, the driving). By the way, as hire cars are used by BirdLife Malta, to drive you have to be over 21 years old – I just about pass that criteria 🙂

One of the many benefits of volunteering here is meeting people from different countries, cultures, careers and backgrounds. It’s great to see people who’ve never met before, bond over the common cause. To share stories of experiences and life. This Camp has had a great mix of age and experience.

It’s 04:45 (Malta time) and as I sit in the airport ready to leave the country, part of me is with the teams going out this morning. There are a few more days of Camp left – the dates coincide with migration periods – but there will be other ‘missions’ taking place afterwards. Perhaps to follow up on intelligence gathered during the Camp or to revisit sites where hunters have been behaving differently or have been aggressive (only yesterday in two separate exchanges, BirdLife Malta teams stood their ground whilst being shouted at, calling the red faced shooters’ bluffs that they were on private land (they weren’t) “I call the police” “Go on, then” sums up the conversations).

I’ll be back and so will others. There will be new volunteers. This is the penultimate postcard. The last one will be a summary of the ‘rules’ – info. on the law, what can be shot legally etc. as well as a small paragraph on how you can help.

And, of course, I chose the Immigration Queue that moved the slowest.

Postcards from Malta: local birder

Maltese birders help BirdLife Malta in a number of ways but they have to be careful. @JPFIOTT explains what’s its like to be a local with a love of birds:

When I started birding in 2002 I soon realized that most of the birds which flew over Malta low enough would get shot. Local birders considered this state of affairs as a matter of fact and limited their birding to nature reserves so as to avoid seeing disgusting, traumatic scenes of birds getting killed on a regular basis. For some reason, perhaps instinctively, I chose to do most of my birding at Xrobb l-Ghagin, a peninsula on the South East coast. The birding was great but the number of birds I saw being shot was impressive too. The first Bittern I have ever seen was blasted 50m away from where I used to stay. For the record it happened on a Sunday afternoon when all hunting is supposed to be prohibited.

Little could be done to tackle such heinous wildlife crime at that time. Reports of illegal hunting would fall on deaf ears or, at best, the police would make a cursory visit to the crime scene, usually hours after the incident would have been reported. I was obviously very sad and frustrated to witness such killing on a daily basis and it was therefore quite natural for me to volunteer to assist in setting up the first Raptor Camp in 2007 and to participate in every camp organized since then.

The results obtained through these camps have been impressive. During the first camp we could easily feel how our presence would make a difference as the number of shots heard would decrease dramatically within minutes of arriving at any site. The killing of a number of raptors was still witnessed but nowhere near the scale seen before. For the first time, most of the raptors which roosted in Malta were successfully making it to Africa the next day. These impressive results were further improved in subsequent camps as our perseverance paid off and poachers eventually started giving up on their practices.

Data collected through these camps also helped Birdlife to successfully increase pressure on the political front and hunting was banned after 3pm in the peak period for raptor migration in autumn. This ban made it more difficult for poachers to operate and so the number of birds shot decreased even more in subsequent years.

If I had to quantify the number of birds of prey flying low through Malta which successfully continue their journey I’d say – disclaimer: my perception, not scientifically ! – that <10% used to make it before 2007. This increased to around 65% in 2007 and to up to 95% by 2011 – 2013. These figures are really impressive when considering that the presence of the monitoring camps was the only factor that changed between 2006 and 2007.

Unfortunately, the situation degenerated after 2013 due to a number of reasons. The change in Government didn’t help as the incoming administration pledged with the hunters that they would be sympathetic to their cause. I don’t blame the poachers for assuming this sympathy was extended to them too. Hunters’ associations generally portray illegal hunting to be a minor nuisance by a few rogue elements and blame Birdlife for bloating its scale.

The ban on hunting after 3pm was amended to read 6pm, allowing poachers precious additional hours in which they could stay in the field, particularly when raptors are at their most vulnerable, circling low over a wide area to search for a suitable site to roost. The ill-fated referendum on spring hunting in which hunters narrowly won public approval for their barbaric acts further complicated matters.

After being initially shocked with the surveillance of Birdlife and CABS volunteers, poachers eventually became more adept and started doing their abominable practices from places concealed from public views; hidden between trees or from secluded areas surrounded by private land. They were greatly assisted by many otherwise law abiding hunters who, like their associations, went out of their way to assist them by being hostile to our presence and by informing them about our presence.

Poachers are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of our resources and I have noted they have recently started occupying areas from where they had been “flushed out”. And this is where you birders out there may act – please come and help ! The possibility of serving a good cause just by putting your feet up and basking in the sun in random places in the Maltese countryside should be tempting enough. The raptors and other migrants which fly over, whilst not numerate, can be nice too. The occasional Egyptian Vulture or Eleonora’s Falcon might be a lifer for some of you.

Eyes on the fields!

Postcards from Malta: Hunting the [Illegal] Hunters

Already, the punishing shift patterns are beginning to take their toll. The teams are allocated districts to monitor. Often that will mean what sometimes seems like an endless journey to distant parts of the island through the Maltese traffic. The rules of the road are different than that of the UK and could easily fill a ‘Postcard From Malta’ of their own!

When we arrive, the constant scanning of the countryside (not to look for a sought-after species for enjoyment but for the whereabouts of hunters who may, or may not, keep to shooting the 40 or so species they are legally allowed to hunt) is wearing. The infrastructure of the hobby is all around, a constant reminder of the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – old tin cans strung up in trees and bushes so that they can be used to flush birds for an easy kill; shooting butts made of wooden pallets or Maltese stone; hunting towers. The hunters who stick to the rules suffer the intrusion into their life of the team of monitors but that’s the fallout for not disassociating themselves from those that shoot protected species – buzzards, harriers, vultures, storks, flamingos, herons, bee-eaters etc etc.

There are regular places to visit and some random destinations. We’re continually logging who is doing what, where they’re doing it, vehicles, behaviours as well looking out for migratory species that might draw the attention of the less principled shooters. Are they far enough from built up areas (200m) or main roads (50m)? Did they fire more than 3 shots in a row (anymore and the shotgun may be have been modified illegally)? Are they using illegal electronic callers? Familiarity with the regulations helps of course but the constant reviewing in your head of what you’re seeing is sapping.

Quail in a cage

We might move around the area by car (more driving) or by foot. The Maltese build fine walls – the workmanship is truly impressive – and it’s easy to use these to our advantage (‘softly, softly catchee monkey’). We’re not allowed to enter private property, so we don’t but it’s amazing how you can nearly always find a line of vision by moving a few inches further down the lane. And it’s amazing what you sometimes see! Equally, it’s a moment that’s not forgotten when an unseen shotgun is fired from right next to you on the other side of a wall!

Shooting tower

Postcards From Malta: Highs and Lows

Along with common migratory Marsh Harriers, Honey Buzzards, Bee-eaters etc., the island gets its fair share of unusual or less common species. Last night, an Egyptian Vulture appeared over Malta.

A species often prized and targeted by shooters, BirdLife Malta know all too well the importance of providing extra protection to any such birds stopping over on the island. This could take the form of teams being sent to the roosting location to prevent it being shot whilst it sleeps. The Raptor Camp volunteers are the core of these protection teams and will set off at truly unsocial hours to try and prevent the killing of the bird. These night shifts are in addition to the regular shifts but no one complains. It makes a difference.

In this case, the bird was lost as it sought its resting place – no night shift. The following morning, teams were sent out to the likely roosting area in the hope that it survived the night and to monitor its departure for Africa. A relatively short journey through the early morning darkness and standard operational procedure (binoculars to hand, video cameras on standby, car parked ready to go) kicked in. Our team of four split up; two were dropped off at a vantage point to monitor a valley (a combination of foot patrol and static watching), the other two relocated to a position where raptors were known to roost. I was in the latter (well, as a driver, I had to be!). We were soon seeing Marsh Harriers taking to the sky (eleven in all) and a single Honey Buzzard – not a massive roost but still an impressive sight. But wait, what’s that?

A lone large bird across the valley flying in short stints along the ridge, landing on rocks. Camera trained on it and much discussion as to what it was. The behaviour was nothing like the Harriers, however, we weren’t confident enough in our ID skills to make a definitive call but our monitoring skills were good enough to keep the bird in view until it flew SW and towards other BirdLife Malta teams. Hours later, back at the hotel, we learned that it was the Egyptian Vulture and that the other team had had much closer views. More importantly, it left the island safely. Job done.

What a shame then that during the afternoon shift, two different teams witnessed two different Honey Buzzards targeted. One was definitely shot, the other may have survived.

No one feels that the job was done.

No one is blamed, but we all feel guilty.

No one gives up.

Postcards from Malta: First Shift

For the next few weeks one of the BAWC team is reporting from Malta.

As a veteran of Spring and Raptor (Autumn) Camps, I was asked to take three people who had not been here before out with me this morning on my first shift this autumn. Interestingly, they were a family who had volunteered to see what was happening on Malta for themselves. After a gentle start, with me saying several times, shifts can be quiet (by quiet I didn’t mean ‘no shooting’ as that’s pretty much a given but ‘no illegal activity’), things got interesting.
 
First, a bit of background. BirdLife Malta is the only Malta based conservation organisation monitoring illegal activity. They also run nature reserves on the island; have a pro-active education team engaging with youngsters in school; they lobby the government on environmental issues and recover injured birds to treat and release or euthanise. This gives them a unique position and respect from the many Maltese who are as anti-poaching as many of you are.
 
Back to this morning. We were assigned a couple of areas to patrol. At the first, we were treated to a flock of Bee-eaters flying at eye-level and below us calling with that very special sound they have. Best of all, none of the hunters that could have taken a shot, didn’t. Next a couple of Marsh Harriers appeared and climbed rapidly out of range as they headed out to sea to continue on their way to Africa. I encouraged the ‘newbies’ to practice their videoing skills and took them through some of the basics of what to look out for.
 
As the hunters were behaving themselves, we moved on. A Falcon was soon spotted; we couldn’t pin down what species but a gentle reminder that it was low enough to be shot and should be video’d spurred the camera operator into action – this isn’t a bird watching holiday, we’re here to protect birdlife. The falcon flew on unharmed. Not two hundred metres further on, a magnificent low -flying Honey Buzzard. The camera operator was straight on it and two seconds later a shot from right underneath the bird. It reacted strongly. Fearing it had been shot, we anxiously scanned the area……
 
THERE!
 
The bird was still flying even lower than before and closely followed by a hunter’s two dogs. It was so low, we lost sight of it again. Jumping back into the car, we drove down the road.
 
 
The dogs ran back to where the shot had rung out. The Honey Buzzard was perched on a rock. We couldn’t see if it was injured. At that moment, a pick up truck appeared with two dogs in a cage and a worried looking hunter driving. We got footage of the registration number as it drove away. Adrenalin flooding through us, I called the police. A very quick response and an ALE Land Rover appeared with two officers. A run through of events and the decision was taken to flush the Raptor, the officers walked towards it and fabulously it took off and flew out to sea clearly undamaged.
 
So much for a quiet first shift!

Raptor tags – update

The raptors we tagged under licence last year (thanks to your support) are doing well. The BAWC funded study continues to gather data and so far there have been no real surprises. The attached map shows an example of the movements of one of them during April/May 2018. This bird has paired up and has an active breeding attempt underway in a small valley on a moorland edge. As you can see from the map this bird rarely records any fixes outside a very small area (approximately 1km2) which is very typical behaviour for a bird at this stage of a breeding attempt.

Interestingly, in early April the bird did record a few fixes away from the site, and on one occasion it flew 10km NNE and returned, the second trip away (also in early April) was when it flew 28km south and returned. These movements are interesting behaviour prior to breeding, but are not suspicious. These kind of data help scientists learn more about the movements of these species.

Obviously for security reasons we are not yet publicising the species we tagged nor their locations. Thanks again, to all BAWC supporters who donated to this project. Without your support and generosity this project would not have been possible. We will try to provide further updates as the season progresses.

Map showing the kind of data that our satellite tagged birds are providing. The location information has been removed to protect the bird and the site.

 

Raptor tracking study: on the move

Well it’s been busy month for BAWC and all those interested in combatting #wildlifecrime. It was great to discuss our raptor tagging study with many BAWC supporters at the various Hen Harrier Day events earlier this month. Last weekend at Birdfair we had many discussion about the tagging work and how many of you hoped that this really starts to shine a light on what is going on with our raptors in the UK uplands. With so many Hen Harriers tagged in recent years, even if not all the data is yet in the public domain – hopefully Natural England will share the publicly funded results soon. And with shed loads of Golden Eagles being monitored in Scotland, it seems like we are approaching a period of enlightenment when it comes to understanding the movements and fate of our magnificent birds of prey. The BAWC funded study continues to gather data and so far there have been no real surprises. The birds tagged so far have all stayed close to their nest sites with very little movement or dispersal. Visual observations of many of those birds have shown the birds to be in good health and behaving as expected. One bird has been a little more adventurous than the others and has made a significant movement of about 46km – the movement can be seen in the image below (in yellow). A nearby bird has ranged no more than 1-2km.

Thanks again, to all BAWC supporters who donated to this project. Without your support and generosity this project would not have been possible.

map of bird movement

 

Peregrine image by Phil Walton

Hen Harrier Day 2017 #StopKillingHenHarriers

Well, didn’t that go well! Larger crowds, more media coverage, #stopkillinghenharriers trending nationally on Twitter. The organisers of every Hen Harrier Day event should be eating their breakfasts this morning with a hard earned feeling of a job well done.

A great example of the media coverage is in this morning’s Sheffield Star https://goo.gl/4vHwYf

In the interest of balanced reporting, they have a quote from Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association. She says “We welcome the highlighting of the hen harrier issue throughout Hen Harrier weekend and believe those managing the land must be a part of the solution.” So far so good.

Then she is quoted as saying “Our support for the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan is unwavering and we eagerly await a decision on our joint application for a licence to instigate a brood management scheme trial of the Action Plan, which we believe would be another step in the right direction to improve the harrier population in the north of England.”

Here BAWC disagrees. RSPB’s Blanaid Denman amply outlined the problem with brood management at the Sheffield event on Saturday. She has studied the movement of sat tagged Hen Harriers for years and explained that they are wilful birds and won’t stay put. They won’t stay near their natal site, if they don’t want to. Therefore, if they don’t want to, they won’t stay around their translocation site, however carefully it is chosen. The birds will seek out prime nesting sites and there is no protected airspace to stop them going where they will, no Hen Harrier exclusion zone, except that enforced by the gun, poison and pole trap.

This is why BAWC can’t support the Action Plan, why we don’t support Brood Management, and why we believe any member of the general public who has the chance to hear both sides of the argument will conclude strengthening and enforcing the laws against Wildlife Crime is the way forward.

Raptor tracking study: all systems go

The licensed raptor tagging team have had a very busy few months locating and monitoring territories and nests. As previously mentioned (see here) a number of known territories were unexpectedly vacated and adults mysteriously disappeared, but despite this, we have tagged a number of raptors in the north of England and we are regularly receiving data from their tags.  The birds have been seen regularly by our field team and our observations in the field and data from the tags show that the birds are behaving normally. The plot below shows the movements of one of the birds to show the type of data that are being collected.

Obviously, we are still being very uncommunicative about which species and which localities are involved in order to protect the birds and the study.

These young birds may well start to disperse over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see, and then they may travel large distances.  We will provide periodic updates on their travels and if they come to any harm then you will hear much more about them.

If you are interested in learning more about how satellite tracking can help us understand more about raptor movements and their fate, then please read the excellent scientific review commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage (see here). Although this report is aimed at Golden Eagles in Scotland, the principles apply to other species and other locations.

Thanks again, to all BAWC supporters who donated to this project. Without your support and generosity this project would not have been possible.

Hen Harrier image by Gordon Yates