Malta’s birds need greater protection
No country in the EU has more hunters, in relative terms, than Malta, and poaching is significant. The most active monitor, the conservation organisation BirdLife Malta, last year recorded a total of 3,253 incidents of hunting that breached national law. These included 420 instances of poachers targeting species protected under EU law, more than half of them subject to special EU conservation measures.
The killing of protected birds peaks twice a year, in spring and in autumn, when birds migrate from and to Africa. While the EU’s Birds Directive allows limited hunting of some species in autumn, it strictly forbids hunting in spring, the breeding season.
But every autumn and spring since Malta joined the EU in 2004, the Maltese government has allowed hunters to shoot two species, turtle doves and quail. In 2008, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ordered a temporary halt to the spring season while it considered Malta’s case for a derogation; last September, it ruled against Malta.
Nonetheless, the Maltese government allowed a spring hunting season this year – albeit shortened to six days (from 24 to 30 April), a small bid perhaps to make its decision seem a little less provocative. But Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has suggested that next year he may allow a three-week season, showing this is not a cause the government will abandon.
Valletta is clearly thumbing its nose at EU law. Its sophistic justification is that, by not holding a spring hunt, it would have jeopardised all possibility of a springtime derogation in future. But it also claims it has legal justification for its actions, pointing to the ECJ’s statement that, based on the number of quail and turtle doves shot in autumn, the “autumnal hunting of these two species cannot be regarded as constituting, in Malta, [a] satisfactory solution to the opening of a spring hunting season”.
The ECJ may have sounded sympathetic, but, of course, its tone changed nothing about its ruling – that a spring hunt was illegal. In any case, the government knows that the assessment by the ECJ was based on flawed figures. In its defence at the ECJ, Malta cited figures based on hunters’ log of kills (the ‘carnet de chasse’) – figures that were not verified independently and which the spokesmen of Malta’s main hunting organisations have publicly admitted were lower than the reality. Malta’s environment agency knows from its own studies that carnets de chasse are inaccurate.
The European Commission has been supine. It has not challenged the veracity of the figures Malta gave the court. It also failed to contest Malta’s insistence that the court should base its ruling on the conservation status of the two birds globally, rather than on their more threatened status in Europe; the Commission’s own guidelines on hunting stipulate that member states should not apply derogations for species of conservation concern in Europe.
The Commission has even said Malta may avoid further legal action if the Maltese government is judged to have effectively enforced the conditions set for the spring hunting season this year.
Failure to sanction Malta will encourage Valletta to think it is acting legally in allowing hunting in the spring. The Commission needs to show some spine or it will send the wrong signal to other member states, particularly in the Mediterranean, that have fought to bring their hunters in line with the law.
The Commission cannot expect much from Malta’s politicians. The last election in Malta was determined by about 1,500 votes – and hunters claim they have about 12,000 members. These are votes that neither of the two political parties will risk losing. It rests with the EU to take action. If it does not, the killing on one of Europe’s three principal migratory paths from Africa will continue.
Caroline Muscat is a journalist based in Malta.