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.
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.
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.
It’s that time of year – the Hen Harrier is back in the news – with the publication of the results of the National Hen Harrier Survey 2016. And like so many times in the past, we at BAWC are bitterly disappointed. The numbers are not good. DEFRA’s “Joint Action Plan to Increase the English Hen Harrier Population” is clearly having little impact.
To quote Martin Harper, Conservation Director for the RSPB: “The latest figures back up a continued trend that we have seen for more than a decade – Hen Harrier numbers are on the decline throughout the UK.”
Furthermore, Martin puts persecution at the centre of the problem: “The illegal killing of this bird of prey is a significant factor behind the diminishing numbers and a large barrier stopping their recovery.”
As at the time of writing, the Hawk and Owl Trust have not commented on the survey. It will be interesting to see what comments they make, given their support for the plan and its controversial support for brood management.
The RSPB stresses that they are not anti-shooting and want to find a sustainable solution for grouse moors. BAWC too is not anti-shooting per se, but what is clear is that one of the UK’s most iconic species is in danger of becoming extinct in England. Throughout the UK, Hen Harrier numbers are falling and the current campaigns and action plans are failing.
BAWC’s position is simple. Raptor persecution is a crime. Hen Harriers and indeed all raptor species in this country are being let down because crimes are going unprosecuted. In addition protection measures are clearly inadequate. BAWC believe that more resources need to be put into the investigation and prosecution of crimes against Hen Harriers. We also believe that vicarious liability should be introduced in England as soon as possible with individuals and employers prosecuted where appropriate.
We’re sure many of our readers would have seen the shocking reports of two cases of blatant birds of prey persecution being dropped by COPFS in Scotland (here and here). The timing of the decision to drop the cases means that no further action can be taken – this has shocked many in the BAWC community. However, the sense of injustice is only making us more determined than ever to play our part in defeating the wildlife criminals.
It is now almost two months since the BAWC community exceeded all of our expectations and generously donated more than £20k for our first field-based project. We will be monitoring raptors using state of the art satellite tracking technology to look at dispersal and survival. As many of you will appreciate we have been keeping the specific details of the project just to those who are directly involved – this is for the safety and welfare of the project team. However, whenever we can, we aim to give project updates so that you can all be assured that your money is being spent wisely and that you are aware of progress.
Since the fund-raising was completed, licensed raptor workers have been checking known territories of a range of species across the north of England – looking for new or renovated nests, plucking posts and fresh kills, as well as displaying adults. The usual picture emerges of many territories being occupied and then adults disappearing. It’s difficult to know how many of these vacancies arise by natural causes and how many are due to more sinister causes. Despite fewer occupied territories than expected we are confident we will be tagging birds this breeding season. The next couple of months will be spent monitoring active nests so that we know the ages of the chicks and can decide which ones to tag on which dates. It will be interesting to see whether any of the young birds that we plan to tag will occupy these sites next year, and what happens to them.
And of course the tags have been ordered and paid for using the money raised by BAWC supporters. Thanks to your generosity we were able to order more tags in this trial year, and testing them prior to deployment will be underway shortly.
Those of you that follow the ongoing travesty of wildlife crime here in the UK will be aware that the Victorian practice of birds of prey persecution is as prevalent today as it was 100 years ago. Indeed, it is the raison d’etre for the existence of BAWC. In many ways there should be no reason for BAWC to exist, on the otherhand never has the BAWC community been so needed. Last week the news broke that a case of Hen Harrier persecution had been dropped by the Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). An active nest of a breeding pair of Hen Harriers was being monitored by licenced RSPB Scotland staff using the standard technique of a remote hidden camera. Such cameras are used to monitor the breeding success of a wide-range of species, including passerines, waders and raptors. As widely reported, this particular case captured footage of a female Hen Harrier flushed from the nest and the sound of two gunshots followed by a ‘puff’ of feathers a split second later. A man carrying a shotgun is then seen holding what appears to be a dead hen harrier and then makes his way to the nest site and collects a number of feathers. Details of the event can be read on the RSPB Scotland website.
It defies belief that any rational person could argue that the video footage does not clearly show a wildlife crime. That the legal authorities have decide not to proceed with case stating that the video evidence is inadmissible seems a rather bizarre stance to take given the wide use of such evidence in a range of other crimes. Why should wildlife crime be treated any differently?
As always Raptor Persecution UK have posted a series of excellent blogs on this latest incident of wildlife crime. See here, here, here and here. Included in these blogs are some ideas on what you can do to show your disgust at the decision not to proceed with this case. If you live in Scotland, we would urge you to contact your MSP (find out who yours is here) and ask him/her to contact the Scottish Government’s Justice Minister, Michael Matheson to complain on your behalf about the handling of this case. The more MSPs that see this video footage, and hear about the public’s serious concerns, the better. For those of you that live outside of Scotland then please email the Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, Margaret Mitchell MSP (Scottish Conservatives). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (thanks to RPUK for these links).
Of you are on social media then please share this news on Facebook and Twitter. The more people hear about these appalling wildlife crimes that are happening here in the UK the greater the desire for change. This is another example of a case that hasn’t resulted in a prosecution or conviction, but we will win in the end. All BAWC supporters can play their part, remember the 3Rs: Recognise, Record, Report.
And finally: RSPB Investigations, keep up the great work, we all appreciate your fantastic efforts to protect our magnificent birds of prey.