Tourists to Malta over the next few weeks might get a shock. The country's mass killing of birds, known as the Spring Hunt, starts today, meaning that thousands of birds will be shot from the skies. If you don't want to be caught in the middle of that, you might want to head somewhere else.
Up until Sunday morning just gone, I had hopes that I wouldn't have to write that first sentence. The Maltese people - at least those who are opposed to the bird hunts - had forced a referendum on the issue in a bid to stop the hunting which leads to the death of tens of thousands of birds each year.
The hunting, by the way, is purely for sport. This isn't a cull for conservation reasons, it's not shooting for food. It's purely for 'fun'.
The birds pass over Malta as part of their annual migration back to Europe after a winter in Africa. Spring means breeding, but the thousands blasted out of the sky will never breed, and this has implications for population levels. Turtle dove and quail are the key - and legal - targets of the hunt, despite the fact that turtle dove populations in particular are now at critical levels across Europe. Malta is the only country in Europe which allows them to be hunted in Spring before they have had a chance to breed.
But the hunters don't just stop at neither their 'legal' targets, nor the somewhat hopeful 'quotas' that they are meant to observe. Around 170 bird species are common in or above Malta during the Spring, including protected species like buzzards and harriers, and the hunters aren't fussy. As their self-proclaimed motto proudly announces - it if flies, it dies.
We were therefore hopeful that the Maltese referendum would lead to the end of this pointless and cruel carnage. Polls before the vote suggested a victory for those opposing the hunt - but come the count, the pro-hunt lobby won by 50.4% to 49.6% (less than 1% difference from a turnout of 250,000 people). For us, and particularly for the many passionate and determined animal welfare organisations across Malta, it was a devastatingly disappointing result.
It's not all gloom - to come that close to ending what some people in Malta see as their right, and a tradition, was heroic and may yet lead to government action to stop it once and for all.
We know how hard it is to battle animal cruelty when it is wrapped in the powerful façade of 'culture' or tradition. Bullfighting in Spain and South America, the dolphin hunts of Taiji in Japan, and of course the UK's own fox hunting are examples where those wishing to do harm to animals for fun or profit continue despite national, and often global, condemnation. (And if you read that sentence and think 'hang on, fox hunting has been stopped', then I'm afraid you're mistaken. It's been banned - but a minority continue to break the law.)
We surely live in a world now where animal welfare is starting to be taken seriously. Many traditions and cultures started when we were less aware, or concerned, about animals, but time has moved on. Calling for the Malta Spring Hunts to be stopped is not an attack on Maltese culture, nor the Maltese people. It's simply saying that we've moved on, that the hunts are nothing but blatant cruelty, and that their time should be up.