2022 is a year for anniversary celebrations at BirdLife, one of those being for BirdLife Malta, who celebrated their 60th anniversary in January. From battling illegal hunting and monitoring migratory bird species to managing four vital nature reserves and engaging communities across the country to support conservation, the organisation has played a crucial role in protecting Malta’s wildlife.
Founded in 1962 as the Malta Ornithological Society, BirdLife Malta is the country’s oldest environmental organisation. From their roots as an organisation focussed solely on the study and protection of birds – therefore often perceived as just an anti-hunting lobby – the organisation has grown into one of Malta’s largest NGO’s and a household name across the country. They joined the BirdLife Partnership in 1992 and now work on a variety of programmes, from research and land management to education and campaigning.
60 years of conserving Malta’s birds and habitats
Conserving birds, their habitats and biodiversity more broadly has been the organisations’ primary goal throughout their history. They work on a wide range of conservation initiatives, including monitoring bird migration and human hunting seasons, partnering with other organisations to lobby against developments on crucial habitats and running Malta’s only licensed bird ringing scheme.
Ferruginous Duck, copyright Stephen Keightley, from the surfbirds galleries
One of BirdLife Malta’s earliest conservation breakthroughs was using their scientific expertise to convince Malta’s government to establish multiple bird sanctuaries. Three of these were eventually handed to the organisation to manage, the oldest being Għadira Nature Reserve, which is particularly notable given its establishment halted plans to build a road directly through the internationally important Ramsar site. Recently, BirdLife Malta were entrusted with the management and restoration of a fourth area, Salina Nature Reserve, which is Malta’s largest salt pan habitat and home to species such as Audoin’s Gull (Vulnerable) and Ferruginous Duck (Near Threatened).
Alongside land management, BirdLife Malta also undertake various scientific studies on Malta’s birds. This includes long-term studies of the country’s seabirds, which have had a lasting impact on Malta’s environment given they were instrumental in the establishment of the country’s first eight Marine Special Conservation Areas in 2016.
The challenges of preventing hunting
Hunting is a widespread activity in Malta and a key threat to many of the country’s bird species. Much of BirdLife Malta’s work therefore focusses on trying to mitigate its impacts. This includes campaigning for Malta’s government to change its hunting policies – an important factor in 2018’s landmark European Court of Justice ruling which banned finch trapping in the country. They also run educational campaigns to try and change the behaviour of communities. For example, their educational campaign to stop European Robin trapping – once a common activity undertaken throughout Malta – significantly reduced the number of Robins being caught. Alongside this, BirdLife Malta have also rescued and rehabilitated thousands of injured birds, giving them a second chance after sustaining hunting-induced injuries.
Despite these efforts, Malta has a large and politically powerful hunting lobby, making change a long and arduous process. Over the last few years, hunting figures have continued to increase in Malta, a trend that sadly looks set to continue in 2022 given the number of casualties already recorded this year – which includes several protected birds of prey species. Much of BirdLife Malta’s battle against hunting focuses on stopping the spring hunting season, which Malta is the only EU member state where this is permitted thanks to a controversial derogation to the European Birds Directive. After years of campaigning, the organisation was influential in a referendum on spring hunting being held in 2015, however this was unfortunately lost – albeit by just 2,200 votes, a narrow margin by Maltese standards.
The challenge BirdLife Malta faces in reducing hunting is exemplified by the European Turtle-dove. Following the species’ uplisting to Vulnerable to Extinction on the IUCN Red List, Malta introduced a moratorium (or temporary prohibition) on the hunting of this protected species in 2017, after the European Commission threatened action given the species’ worrying declines. However, this spring, the Maltese government has lifted the moratorium, despite European Turtle-dove populations continuing to fall steeply across the Central-Eastern flyway and the European Commission strongly recommending zero take across all EU member states in 2022. BirdLife Malta’s legal efforts to try and stop this were unfortunately unsuccessful, and it is now hoped the European Commission will take action against Malta’s government.
Inspiring a love of nature
As BirdLife Malta has grown, environmental education has become a central pillar of the organisation. They pioneered the Dinja Waħda (One World) education programme, which helps schools connect their students to nature. It is now part of Malta’s national curriculum and used in over 80 per cent of the country’s schools, and following this success, the organisation is planning to help replicate it across the BirdLife Partnership. Beyond these formal education programmes, BirdLife Malta also organises various events and field trips to their nature reserves in the hopes of inspiring a love of nature from a young age.
BirdLife Malta also engages the wider public to support conservation efforts through organising and participating in multiple events throughout the year, spreading the message that we are all a part of nature and need to protect it, not just for wildlife but also our own sake. The organisation also actively promotes their work, mission and vision through their strong media presence and their own communication platforms, which includes two magazines they publish every few months. Recently, BirdLife Malta has begun the Blooming Minds programme alongside the Richmond Foundation to harness natures restorative powers through running ecotherapy sessions for people struggling with their mental health. The organisation’s four nature reserves, which welcome hundreds of visitors free of charge every year, are another great way to engage the public in wider conservation issues.
As Malta is Europe’s most densely populated country, building community support towards conservation efforts is vital, as its inhabitants – along with the millions of tourists that flock to the islands every year – have a large impact on the environment. Instilling a sense of pride and responsibility towards the natural world is therefore an essential component of BirdLife Malta’s conservation work.
A time to look ahead
The 60th anniversary of BirdLife Malta has given the organisation a chance to reflect on how far they’ve come, as well as looking ahead to the pressing challenges facing nature, both within Malta and across the world. From their humble beginnings as a small ornithological society, BirdLife Malta have become a highly influential organisation that has had an enormously positive impact on the country’s birds and wider environment. However, they are acutely aware that continuing to protect nature has never been more important, which includes tackling the impacts of illegal hunting, trapping, and habitat loss within Malta, whilst also playing their part in global efforts to prevent climate change, plastic waste and pollution.
To achieve this, continued support of the public is crucial: “BirdLife Malta promises to remain the flag-bearer of nature protection and will be on the front line to push for positive changes in our country’s approach towards biodiversity.” BirdLife Malta’s president, Darryl Grima, eloquently stated during their anniversary celebrations “To do this we need support from the Maltese people, who can help us reach our mission by volunteering with us, donating to our cause, becoming a BirdLife Malta supporter, or better still, joining as members. Becoming a BirdLife Malta member gives us a stronger voice and more lobby strength to bring about the necessary changes when we speak out in favour of Malta’s environment, birds and wildlife!”