Where the Dead Birds Sing
Wild Bird Slaughter and Trapping in Malta
There can be few things in this wonderful world as sweet as birdsong. Be it the chorus of shrill excited chatter that pre-empts a storm or the dawn and dusk expressions of joy as they anticipate the feeding frenzy known as the crepuscular zone. Many of us have woken to the harmonic beauty of birds calling throughout our lives. It's something that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy across the world from Yorkshire to Africa via Asia and even parts of the Middle East. Until that is, I moved to Malta.
Any walk through the Maltese countryside reveals the shameful fact that every copse and field for miles resonate with the shallow electronic replication of migrating birds. To the casual passerby, the sounds of birds happily sharing their days, calling out to future mates and cheering each other on in readiness for the next leg of their migratory journey sounds almost real. It's nothing but a shabby con-trick that would put any macabre Victorian parlour trick to shame. It's like being in some kind of dystopian parody of Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest where the fittest are either captured in nets or simply shot as trophies.
Sitting quietly outside a local bar I observe tourists to Malta; sipping their coffees in shared wonderment, wistfully enthralled by the startling, breathtaking chorus around them. They lean into each other and you can hear them whispering how beautiful and joyous it is to be in the countryside. How lucky they are to be able to experience such a magical thing. I'm tempted to lean across and slay their illusion, pull the rabbit out of the hat like a magician and blow away the enchantment. But, alas, just as there are no wild birds singing ebulliently to and between each other, there are no wild rabbits either. This enchanted land is more akin to something reminiscent of Tolkien's, Sauron. It's barren and empty, all life has been scorched and all traces removed barring the odd hedgehog and the island's largest predator rats, whose existence is evidenced by the colourful array of mosaic-like roadkill which adorns every highway and byway.
Yet, speak to most Maltese people and they genuinely share my angst. I'm open and honest in conversation with them, I ask questions out of curiosity and inquisitiveness because that is in my nature. Over the past few months, I've talked to hunters in Malta when I've walked my dog. It's bizarre because when I mention grouse or pheasant shooting in the UK they break into huge smiles and openly espouse their envy for such things. When, however, I ask them what they are hunting today, they become suspicious, wary and falter to find an answer. Despite the fact that in the previous 30 minutes I've listened to a cacophony of gunshots, often a fusillade of double-tapped bangs; there is no sign of any game, no keepers pouch bulging with something for that evening's pie or casserole. There is just a bunch of guys wandering around disconsolately with little if any gun safety and never any range marshalls or high visibility vests. Not a flag to be seen anywhere advising the casual dog walker to be cautious.
There is no sporting context to the shooting in Malta that I can perceive. There is no shooting to eat, no days where man, woman and children clamber over barbed wire, fight through heavy bramble and wade through mud and streams together as on a pheasant or grouse shoot in the UK. Here in Malta, gun-toting men seemingly with nothing else to do; merely wander around blasting anything that moves. From dawn until dusk they fire cartridge after cartridge into the countryside surrounded by electronic bird calling devices set out to lure some poor unsuspecting migrating bird within range. Occasionally if a bird is lucky enough it may be lulled into the depths of a gossamer fine net instead of into a spray of poorly choked lead.
It seems pointless beyond redemption. The tragedy is that there is no end in sight. This isn't a finely curated tradition carefully managed to ensure that it is sustainable for generations to come, for the good of the land and the environment that supports it. This pastime doesn't sustain or even really contribute to a local economy from what I can see. For me, as someone who is passionate about gun dogs and gun dog training, field trials and country fairs the whole things seems to lack any real gravitas as a pastime or even a day out. It just appears callous and wanton and stinks of self-righteousness.
Wandering through the countryside or even the scarce yet beautiful woodland such as the heritage trail that runs from Xemxija through to Manikata and you cannot fail to stumble across the debris from the hunting season. For those who protest the traditions and the cultural roots, their love of the land and their heritage is why they shoot. Any gaze around the landscape and it would appear as though they've set off a fabulously huge firework and fire millions of shotgun casings into the sky. Observing the cartridges used and the size of the birds they shoot there isn't much a taxidermist can do. Surely, there can be little left for the pot or even a paupers stew. Shotgun shells are strewn everywhere across the ground. A panoply of coloured plastic residue, reds, blues, greens and whites almost like a rainbow yet all that lies at the end is not a pot of gold, just a menagerie of dead birds who no longer call.
The reality is a nightmare, an almost surreal landscape that begs for the psychological terror of Alfred Hitchcock's movie Birds to become more than a novel. A day of redemption where the birds make a comeback. Ghostly spectres of ravenous songbirds and hungry carrion fleck the skies in their thousands stalking and marauding hunters and trappers. A day when the birds fight back; driving their tormentors insane. Those people who believe that saturating the countryside with artificial birdsong morning, noon and night experience the fear and the pain.
It almost makes me wonder if I'd be better off deaf. Surely, imagining in my head a chorus of birdcalls would be better than listening to the recorded calls of the dead.