I’m following Chris Packham’s videos from Malta with interest mixed with frustration and sadness. I had a week in Malta working with the ALE branch of the police, courtesy of the RSPB and Birdlife Malta, some 10 years or so ago. It seems the situation is little better now than it was then. I gave two or three presentations a day to the police and Customs on how we investigate bird crime in Scotland, but part of the time was also spend out on the ground with the officers.
Their inspector at the time was Alex Miruzzi, a very young chap for an inspector but full of enthusiasm. His team of I think eight officers were equally enthusiastic but appreciated that with the numbers of shooters and bird trappers on Malta at the time – and the fact that the island of Gozo seemed almost a no-go area for them – they were thin on the ground. My first shock was when Alex told me they had arrested a man just days before for stopping his car on a public road, only a few cars in front of the police car, jumping out and shooting an osprey that was flying over the road. That really set the scene for the week
I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of shooting hides made from concrete blocks, but if that was a surprise I had yet to see the areas laid out for netting passerines. These were rectangles cleared of scrub and stones, sometimes, with a small pond to attract birds, and with a clap net set to spring from either side and entrap the birds. Often birds were in small cages near the trapping area to act as decoys and there invariably was a small concrete block hut in which the trapper hid until there were sufficient birds within the trapping area, and he could activate the clap nets. These were legal at certain times of the year and the week I was there this was unfortunately legal. From the trappers’ point of view I could see the need for regular trapping of small songbirds as those they caught would have very short lives as terrified captives.
One of these areas we checked one day had a shed beside it and when we looked into the shed there were a number of birds in small cages. Many of the birds had already died from stress – and that would no doubt be the fate of many more. A scops owl was being kept in a larger cage and was clearly being fed on the small birds that had died. So that the trapper could handle the owl without risk of sharp claws he had cut the all of the claws completely off. The pain for the bird must have been excruciating and seemed hardly necessary for such a small owl. I was haunted for weeks by the image of this lovely wee bird with huge bright yellow eyes being subjected to such torture. The police made regular visits to the shed to try to catch the owner but never succeeded. I was puzzled by the seeming lack of ownership or accountability for land in Malta.
On our last day we found an illegally set mist net. This net was at least ten feet high and probably 30 yards long. There were several dead birds in it, left to cook in the sun since they were probably birds of little interest to the trapper. As we were approaching the net we had incredible luck as the trapper came to examine it, had not spotted us and was chased and caught by the police. He at least would face the courts.
I came away after my week thinking that this situation could not be allowed to continue much longer, especially as Malta was likely to join the EU. Here we are a decade later and still the carnage continues, made worse by the fact that many of the birds being killed – legally or otherwise – are now extremely scarce. Let’s hope the exposure that this scandal is getting from Chris and others might be a turning point.