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Killing Fields of Barbados

Annual Slaughter of Migrating Waders in Barbados

A small minority of wealthy planters and their friends are responsible for shooting up to 40,000 migrating waders (shorebirds) each year between August and November in Barbados, West Indies. This puts the island in the same league as Malta and Cyprus among others for the wanton destruction of migrating wild birds.

The slaughter is highly organised and takes place in a number of shallow, man-made lakes, which are made to seem highly attractive resting places for exhausted migrating waders. Some of the lakes have up to 2 hectares of open water with specially built flat mud banks within easy range of the central shooting hut. Caged birds of the species being shot are strategically placed close to the mud banks and the hunters have special whistles to imitate the different bird calls, which are also supplemented by the use of amplified recordings of these calls to approaching flocks broadcast from the roof of the shooting hut. Artificial decoys are also placed in the shallow water.It is a windy time of year and large mixed flocks of exhausted birds often fly in after a storm. They are met by a barrage of fire from repeater pump action shot guns. The shooters often wait for the birds to settle before firing and it is a matter of pride not to let one single bird escape. The lakes (known locally as shooting swamps) are often manned all day during the shooting season, seven days a week.

This practice has been going on for generations but has become more refined and organised in the last fifty years. Such organised and methodical shooting does not take place on the other Caribbean islands. The birds being shot are migrating south from Canada and America where they are fully protected all the year round. They include species such as The Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper and perhaps of particular concern is the American Golden Plover, whose population is declining rapidly - it has been estimated recently that up to 5% of the total population of this bird is now being shot in Barbados each year. All species are shot regardless of their scarcity, and there is even an instance of the (now extinct) Eskimo Curlew being shot in the mid 1960’s. A Barbadian, Maurice Hutt, produced a study of Swamp Shooting in 1991. It makes horrific reading as summarised in the paragraphs above; Mr. Hutt is now dead and his efforts to prevent swamp shooting were suppressed and stifled by the powerful shooting lobby in Barbados.

If anything, swamp shooting has intensified further since Maurice Hutt’s day. It would appear that the only way to have this annual slaughter stopped would be with pressure from the Canadian & American governments, as well as from other outside authorities, leading to concerted action by the Barbados Government, which up until now has seemed reluctant to act.

A recent general election has resulted in a change of Government in Barbados headed by Prime Minister, David Thompson. The new Minister for the Environment, The Rt. Honourable Dr Esther Byer Suckoo is taking the bold initiative of intending to ban & outlaw once & for all the practice of swamp shooting. For Barbados this will be the equivalent of the banning of hunting with dogs in the UK. Swamp shooting is virtually a cultural activity for the wealthy, landed class in Barbados that has been practiced for countless generations & there is likely to be a similarly strong reaction from its practitioners to a proposed ban as that experienced in the UK with fox hunting. There have been proposals to impose controls on the shooting, either self policed or by Government Inspectors . One of the arguments put forward is that banning the shooting will cause the swamps to be abandoned & dry up resulting in such a large loss of suitable wetlands that the migrating birds will suffer. This is a spurious argument which taken to its logical conclusion says that the birds must be shot in order to preserve them. There are suitable natural wetlands on the island & in addition heavy rain at that time of year provides plenty of shallow surface water for the birds. Experience shows that self policing in human endeavours hardly ever works properly. In addition, policing would be hard to monitor and, to be effective, would require liaising with, & receiving directives from, the US & Canadian Wildlife authorities, something which would be politically unacceptable in the long run.

The new Government of Barbados could do with all the support it can muster & readers of this piece are encouraged to write & e-mail to the Minister of the Environment expressing their views.

The Rt Hon. Dr Esther Byer Suckoo, Minister for the Environment, 1st Floor, The S.P. Musson Building, Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies. Her e-address is enbvirobdos@gob.bb

Anyone wanting more information should contact: J M Shemilt, “Protection for Migrating Birds”, 9a The High Street, Twyford, Berkshire RG10 9AB, United Kingdom shemilts@centurygalleries.co.uk

4th July 2014