Two marsh harriers were reported shot yesterday, as the spring hunting season controversially opened for business.
One of the protected migratory birds of prey, a juvenile, was found injured in Gozo yesterday morning, with fresh gunshot wounds to its wing.
A second marsh harrier, meanwhile, was found dead and in an advanced state of decomposition – indicating that the bird had been shot down in the days leading up to the season’s opening. The dead bird also carried a ring indicating it had come from Finland.
The injured bird was handed over to the Gozo police, and both incidents have been reported to the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) unit as well as to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa).
Yesterday’s reported incidents follow last week’s discovery of two other protected birds, a pallid harrier and a purple heron – one shot in Malta and the other in Gozo.
In the meantime, international environmental lobby pressure continued to mount on the government yesterday as the spring hunting season opened, albeit with a slew of new penalties and fines appli-cable to those found breaking hunting laws.
Such fines and penalties have been doubled for first-time offenders, and stiffer fines – including the possibility of prison sentences, Lm6,000 fines and the permanent revocation of hunting and firearms licences – have been introduced for repeat offenders.
Bird conservation organisations from across Europe united in protest yesterday against the government’s controversial decision to open the spring hunting season for yet another year, in defiance of the European Commission, which insists the practice constitutes a continued breach of the Birds Directive.
The European Partnership of BirdLife International, which brings together 42 separate national conservation organisations, urged Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi yesterday to end spring hunting and “clamp down” on poaching, as wild birds, both protected and un-protected, make their way from Africa to their European breeding grounds.
Speaking yesterday on behalf of the BirdLife European Partnership, Konstantin Kreiser, EU Policy Manager at BirdLife International explained: “Malta is a vital stepping-stone for these birds on their exhausting journey northwards, hence this is not an issue just for Malta – it affects all European nations.
“Conservationists, citizens, organisations and governments across Europe have invested significant amounts of time and resources in protecting wild birds in their own countries. The fact that the Maltese government allows these birds to be killed during their journey to the breeding grounds is deeply shocking – particularly as this decision ignores the law and all scientific evidence and instead seems heavily influenced by upcoming elections.
“The Maltese hunters may not want to live up to their common responsibility as Europeans, but the Maltese government should.”
He added: “Malta and the whole European network of BirdLife International will continue to press Malta to stop spring hunting and to clamp down on poaching, otherwise the country risks not only a heavy fine from the European Court of Justice but also a
further deterioration of its
public reputation in the EU.”
The European Commission began legal action on the issue against Malta in June 2006 and the proceedings were recently extended to cover what the EC considers to be a violation of the Birds Directive not only in 2004 but also in 2005, 2006 and this year. Last month the European Parliament strongly endorsed the Commission’s stance and approved a resolution calling on Malta to immediately end spring hunting and trapping.
Sources close to the issue are of the opinion that the EC has stepped up its action against Malta with a view to bringing a consolidated case before the European Court of Justice as quickly as possible.
The government is reported to have replied to the Commission’s charges that it has broken the Birds Directive for now the fourth year
running, arguing autumn migrations are excessively
limited to provide for a worthwhile practice.
The government is to back up its stance with data from a scientific study, the methodology of which has been blasted, among a number of criticisms, as being designed in such a way as to lead to a skewed and misleading result favouring low migratory numbers for autumn and high figures for spring.
The spring hunting season closes on 20 May, and while the government insists that the spring hunting of turtledove and quail is justifiable in terms of its arguable derogation from the Birds Directive, all other species are clearly off limits.