Sunday, 27 April 2014

Gozo would be a birds' paradise but for all the guns

It wasn’t quite like waking up in a war zone; more like discovering you’ve booked your holiday cottage next door to the OK Corral. Except that the famous shoot-out there is only reckoned to have lasted about a minute.
The guidebooks warn that hikers and birdwatchers on Gozo can come into conflict with locals during the hunting season. You should be OK, they say, in the spring.
Well, perhaps it was the intensely Catholic Gozitans’ way of celebrating Easter week, but my few days on their sunny island certainly didn’t seem like the off-season for taking pot-shots at anything with wings and a beak. The sound of gunfire provided every morning’s wake-up call. And then some.
According to Gozo’s tourist board, the season ended on January 31 – not that it admits on its website that anything as off-putting as bird-slaughter ever takes place there at all.
An article from the local paper, the Malta Independent, rather quaintly ascribes the year-round noise to “an ingenious contraption aimed at scaring birds away from crops”. Yeah, right.
Living in rural East Anglia, I’m not unfamiliar with bird-scaring cannons. I know what they sound like, and I know what they look like.
In a few days of walking around the terraced fields, fragrant hillsides and flower-covered clifftops of Gozo I saw no sign of a single cannon. What I did see everywhere were the small stone shelters used by the hunters, many equipped with old car seats for the killers’ comfort.
I saw many small stands of non-native eucalyptus trees, apparently planted to assist in luring and trapping migrating birds on the vital stopover between north Africa and southern Europe. And a couple of times I heard what I took to be birdsong before realising it was too mechanically repetitive to be anything but another lure.
There are wild birds to be seen on Gozo – mostly pigeons and sparrows, though I did spy one swallow and a solitary buzzard which had somehow evaded the gunsights.
But as I made my way through that idyllic landscape I couldn’t help thinking what a paradise it would be for our feathered friends if it weren’t for that deadly cocktail of testosterone and gunpowder running through local veins.
Not, of course, that everyone in Gozo – or the larger, much more heavily populated island of Malta, from where it is governed – is gun-crazy.
The tiny country’s economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism, and many of the people must be acutely aware of how important its image in the world is to that. Some of them must also know that its gunmen take a devastating toll on Europe’s birdlife, and in the process do untold damage to that image too.
One Gozo resident told me that the hunters and their keenest supporters make up only about four per cent of the population – but that they hold the balance of power between the main political parties, who dare not antagonise them.
That makes the situation horribly like that in the USA, where the unspeakable National Rifle Association seems to wield a deadly power over the whole nation.
And where the legend of the OK Corral is just part of a powerful tradition of pro-gun myth-making propaganda.
Don’t let my account of the perils faced by its birds put you off: Gozo is lovely.
It’s not as wild and deserted as I’d been led to believe. In one way it’s like Norfolk-on-Med – though a very much smaller Norfolk (one 79th the area and one 27th the population).
Almost nowhere in the island’s 26 square miles are you out of sight of the next village, the next church.
One of those villages, Xewkija, has a population of 3,000 and a church with a dome that ranks third in size only to St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London. It’s visible from almost everywhere in Gozo and could probably fit the whole village inside.
And while Norfolk’s churches are mostly medieval, this one was finished in 1971. All over Gozo are buildings constructed in the local stone and the traditional style but bearing dates within the last 30 years.
Space and wilderness are relative, though. Gozo is much quieter and calmer than its frenetic neighbour, the main island of Malta.
Its pleasures and simplicity are enough to have tempted the Norfolk bor I went there to visit to make it his permanent home.
Remarkably, he is funding his new life on the difference between the rent he can get for his house in Bungay and what he must pay for a small apartment in Gozo. His needs are few and as long as he stays fit – and the economic balance remains as it is – he’s a drain on neither country’s welfare system.
The biggest threat to his idyll is that Britain might, as he puts it, “take leave of its senses” and pull out of the European Union.
That could end his right to live where he has chosen. A fate that might be shared by all of the 1.8million Britons currently living in Europe.
That total, coincidentally, almost exactly matches the number of non-British EU citizens resident in Britain.
And shows what pointless chaos would be caused were UKIP to get their way.

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