Malta referendum fails to ban hunters shooting migrating birds

By Tracy Brighten

Fewer turtle doves will now survive their epic 3,000 mile migration from Africa to European breeding grounds, leaving conservationists stunned 

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Hunters have won a Malta referendum allowing them to continue the tradition of shooting turtle doves and quail in spring, from April 14 until April 30. The margin of victory was slim, reflecting widespread Maltese opposition to this tradition. Hunting of these birds is banned elsewhere in the European Union.

Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat supports the hunters, but made it clear that anyone breaching the limits for the spring shooting will receive a fine and a prison sentence. The limit, reported by the BBC, is 11,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail, with individual hunters restricted to two birds a day, and to four birds per hunter for the whole season. The penalties would indicate the government is serious about controlling this sporting cull, but the effectiveness of limits will only be as good as the regulation enforcement. In their argument for a ban, environmentalists have pointed to hunters’ past disregard for rules.

The Malta Independent reported that the timing of the Malta referendum – before the shooting commences – avoided graphic images and illegal hunting activities that might work in favour of a ban. Any illegalities now will cause embarrassment for the prime minister, but electors will have to wait two years for a further referendum on the same matter. If shooting is a significant factor in population decline, then with UK numbers halving every six years according to RSPB reports, turtle dove numbers will be noticeably depleted before the next vote.

According to the RSPB, turtle dove numbers in the UK fell by 74% between 1995 and 2009, attributed to reduced breeding success, reduced feeding habitat with changing farming practises, and also to the recreational spring shooting in Malta. Turtle doves follow a route from Africa to Malta before fanning out across Europe to breed, and this mass springtime killing reduces the breeding population.

The turtle dove is a migratory visitor to the UK, arriving via the Mediterranean during late April to early May for the breeding season, and departing late August to early September to spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once common in England and Wales, these thrush-size birds with tortoiseshell plumage on their back and wings, and distinct black and white bars on their neck, are now mostly confined to East Anglia and pockets of south-east England. Even in 2013, a sighting was so rare outside these areas that the BBC reported bird watchers flocking to Otmoor Nature Reserve in Oxfordshire on hearing a rumour that a family of turtle doves had moved in.  

The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds launched Operation Turtle Dove in 2012 to support the recovery of these timid birds, often heard in open woodland during summer and recognised by their gentle “turr-turr” call.

The project includes collaborative initiatives with farmers whereby turtle dove habitat is created on farmland by planting nectar flower crops, keeping uncropped cultivated margins for arable plants, and growing tall hedgerows for nesting. Food producers are also involved through the ‘Fair to Nature’ conservation-grade scheme where products meet sustainable farming standards.

The RSPB is also working globally to reverse the population decline, including campaigning to end the spring shooting in Malta. ‘Birds Without Borders’ is a collaborative effort between Birdlife International partners, across nations and cultures, to track the turtle dove migratory route and life cycle. Using satellite technology, birds with small satellite tags can be monitored on their migratory journey to provide more information on feeding and breeding behaviour in their summer and winter habitats.

Self-interested groups and governments may resist change, but with advances in global communication and increased public awareness, collaborative conservation efforts can reverse the declining turtle dove population.

The RSPB points to the extinction of the North American passenger pigeon 100 years ago as a warning of the turtle dove’s fate if hunting and habitat loss are not addressed. A long-standing cultural symbol of love, friendship and devotion, the turtle dove’s extinction would be another ecological tragedy.

Article update October 2015:
With declining populations, the European turtle dove has been reclassified from ‘least concern’ to ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for Endangered Species

Image credit:  BBC