Decisive battle on spring hunting imminent after rushed Miżieb agreement

Friday’s rushed signing of the contract that bars the wider public from Malta’s largest two publicly-owned woodlands during hunting hours, when these woodlands would be exclusively reserved for hunters, may reinvigorate the battle against hunting that had been subdued after the referendum of 2015, when spring hunting was spared from outright prohibition by the narrowest of victories.

News that broke out earlier this week that the government intended to give the management of the two woodlands, Il-Mizieb and L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha, to the hunting federation, FKNK, caused outrage.

A new level of haughtiness

The signing ceremony was scheduled for this Sunday at 4pm, but the government brought it forward by two days to avert being disrupted by a protest that was due to be held at the intended time and venue of the signing ceremony. Hence yesterday’s rushed, secretive signing ceremony, in which not even the media was invited.

It marked a new level of haughtiness: a document kept hushed until it was signed in private before civil society or the media had time to scrutinise it.

Yesterday’s signing also coincided with the latest outrage, a reported twelve short-toed eagles shot in Gozo, making this season the deadliest for protected birds since 2013, when Labour’s win in the general election emboldened hunters and turned that year’s hunt into, as Birdlife described it at the time, “a free for all”.

The situation now has lapsed to that low again, perhaps an indication that a general election is on the way.

An embarrassment of illegalities

In 2013, the excesses led to the spring hunting referendum in 2015 that was narrowly won by the hunting lobby. Seven years later, the intensification of illegal hunting this year and now the pandering to hunters by the handover of public woodlands has reignited a sense of outrage that provides momentum for another move on spring hunting, which analysts see as the decisive battle against hunting in Malta.

Spring hunting remains the hunt most dear to Maltese hunters, and shutting down the spring hunt – something that sources in the office of Environmental Commissioner said can be accomplished in the Maltese courts – would knock the wind out of hunting generally.  

Lax derogation

Malta has derogated from EU law that bans hunting in spring since a judgement of the European Court of Justice in 2009 left open the possibility of applying a derogation for limited hunting under “strictly supervised conditions” on the basis that the numbers of two game species shot in autumn was small and offered “no other satisfactory solution” other than a spring hunt.

But the application of the derogation has become increasingly lax in the past few years, and illegal hunting has also simultaneously intensified.   

 The Birds Directive defines the parameters of a derogation as being “under strictly supervised conditions and on a selective basis, the capture, keeping or other judicious use of certain birds in small numbers.”

Yet Malta has been making a sham of ‘strict supervision’. Last spring, two small Birdlife teams documented 167 illegalities while the four dozen police officers patrolling in various teams found only 13 illegalities.

Birdlife concerned

Birdlife put together a video of at least 56 illegalities – the video constitutes court-grade evidence. The video demonstrates widespread targeting of turtle doves, and not quails as permitted – this is a breach of the “selective basis”.

Turtle doves are vulnerable to extinction, and the targeting of a vulnerable species on its way to breed in spring – under cover of a derogation from EU law – is an indication that Malta spring hunt derogation is a perversion of EU law.

There is also circumstantial evidence of government complicity: the spring open season has been incrementally shifted to the latter part of April in the past few years when turtle dove migration peaks – and when quail migration would be waning.  

In last spring’s video, Birdlife captured footage of several instances of hunters at Il-Mizieb and L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha shooting at turtle doves. These woodlands have now been gifted to the hunters themselves.

This is set to add to the sense that Malta is totally out of kilter. While the rest of the EU focuses on conservation programmes designed to reverse the population declines of the turtle doze – an iconic bird in Europe – the Maltese government hands over publicly-owned woodlands, where turtle doves could potentially breed, to the hunters whom, last spring’s video evidence shows, have been illegally shooting turtle doves in those same woodlands.

Analysis and consultation with experts also shows that the spring derogation may lack legal justification, within the terms of EU law, because of the unreliability or fraudulence of hunt data self-reported by hunters.

The derogation has to be justified every year by the previous autumn’s bag figures, and no derogation would be possible if more than 20,000 quail are shot in autumn. Moreover, the full hunt quota – of 5,000 birds – would only be granted if the number shot in autumn would be less than 10,000 quails.

The number of quails shot in autumn is a tally of hunters’ individual self-reports, and hunters’ reports of catches have been steadily decreasing. The number of quail reported shot by hunters last autumn amounted to a mere 103. But over the same period, between 1 September and 31 October of 2019, government-commissioned migration studies estimated that some 80,000 quail migrated over Malta, a figure that was lower than some previous years when hunters’ reports of shot quails ran into the thousands. 

An EU law expert said on condition of anonymity that if a court could be convinced that the hunt data is unreliable, that would be another strong factor that would compel the court to shut down spring hunting.