The Malta Independent 25 June 2024, Tuesday
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BirdLife CEO - belief that governments may win elections by helping hunters is ‘fallacy’

Helena Grech Wednesday, 4 October 2017, 10:53 Last update: about 8 years ago

Mr Sultana has followed the Prime Minister's comments with disbelief. While fielding questions from the press on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that thanks to a change in the law during the previous legislature, he can only close the hunting season upon advice from the Ornis Committee.

A follow-up story by this newsroom included comments from an OPM spokesperson, quoting a part of the law where it grants the Ornis Committee power to do this, but Environment Minister Jose Herrera, after this change in the law, was quoted by this newsroom as having said in March 2016 the government absolutely has the power to do so.

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Speaking inside Birdlife Malta's modest offices in Ta' Xbiex, Mr Sultana said it, "is simply not true that the prime minister cannot take the decision to close the hunting season of his own volition, without the advice of the Ornis committee. He can close the season at any point, and he is not doing so not because he does not have the power, but because he does not have the will. He can get advice from anyone, Ornis is one of them but the reality is that Ornis is designed in a way that goes along with what the government wants. It is made up in a way where you have a voting power of FKNK, a voting power of BirdLife, and then you have three representatives of the government that are supposed to be independent, and one from the Environmental and Resources Agency (ERA), and then you have the chairman. All are appointed by the government at the end of the day.

"Passing the buck at this stage in this season is not correct. I do not think the prime minister is being given the right advice about the law because he does have the power. He might know it but he might prefer to have the Ornis give him that advice.

"This will not happen. It is unrealistic although we will definitely raise the issue."

In the same comments, the PM had admitted that there is not enough enforcement, adding that enforcement is an issue in all aspects of law and order due to a human resource issue.

In his reaction, Mr Sultana stressed that, "saying there is not enough enforcement is not an acceptable thing. What are we going to do? If there is not enough enforcement, we might have to redesign what we are doing. Keep in mind that we are giving privileges to people to go out in the open with loaded shotguns, it is not a joke.

"The second thing I am preoccupied with is how blatantly he [the PM] said it, although I appreciate his honesty, it is detrimental for all the birds flying over Malta in the coming days. What he is saying is that I'm sorry but I cannot control you.

"I have been saying this for a number of years: the hunting issue in Malta and the discipline are all controlled by a psychological factor - fear. If they [hunters] know that they are going to be caught and prosecuted, they will not shoot."

Pointing to the relatively smaller number of protected birds being shot in previous years, Mr Sultana said that hunters "did not change because of conservation values, but because of fear."

"When you start sending the message that we do not have enough enforcement, or the situation is not as bad - which actually translates into we do not really know what is going on hunters are going to hear the message 'do what you please. "

In the previous legislature, under the PL government, fines had been increased for illegal hunting while a possibility of jailtime had also been introduced.

'Hunters do not win an election'

Mr Sultana said that he does not think the government can win an election by helping the hunting lobby.

"This is a fallacy and I take my hat off to the hunting lobby for managing to convince the politi-

cal parties of it. Both parties believe that the hunters vote for their hobby. If this was true, they would lose all respect from society as this is the most egoistic thing the lobby can do. You would expect a person to vote for a party that would take Malta to the next level in all aspects, such as the economy, education, social issues and health. God forbid that we have 10,000 hunters who vote purely on whether they can kill a bird or not. If that is the case, then we truly get what we deserve.

"The reality is that there is a concept that the hunters can change a government. You have PN and PL hunters, and you have a few who may be willing to change sides. If both major parties decide that they will ban the practice, there would be no votes to gain and no votes to lose."

He accused the PL government of campaigning in favour of spring hunting referendum, adding that this is "not just a gut feeling. We know for a fact".

"Do not forget that there was a local council election at the time. The prime minister declared he would be voting in favour of spring hunting about three times in Gozo. There were people at PL coffee mornings saying that if the ban on spring hunting goes through, this would be essentially be a vote of no confidence."

Lowering of fines

During the May election campaign, the PL had put in its manifesto a proposal to lower hunting fines.

Mr Sultana said draconian fines do not necessary solve the solution. The suspension of licenses does work, however it's not the only solution. He stressed that "what definitely does not work is having fines, and then reducing them".

"You are sending a message to those who are willing to break the law. It is a message that whatever you were doing before is not as bad now. We are accepting illegalities more in this way. The only people who benefit from reducing fines are those breaking the law. What happened to the values in our society? Where is the limit?

"It baffles me to see that the government might go with it, and we are already seeing the effects from just talking about with such a move."

Mizieb

Earlier this week, the courts ruled that it could not uphold a so-called agreement between the hunting lobbies and former PM Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in 1986 so that the country areas of Mizieb and L-Ahrax were for their exclusive use during hunting seasons. No documentation had been presented and therefore a BirdLife Malta volunteer was acquitted of trespassing on private property.

Mr Sultana said that while reasons of security are provided when challenged about banning the public from using the space during autumn and spring hunting seasons, "the reality is that they can always caution people to enter at their own risk."

This judgment is therefore significant because there was a clear message from the courts that the land is public use.

"Although there are signs telling you do not enter, you can enter."

He objected to calls from people who wanted to go to the land in question and have a picnic. Currently, the Autumn hunting season is underway until early January.

"The issue is here. The hunting lobby in Malta is highly privileged, and it should not take this privilege for granted. Ultimately, it should respect society, try and give back to the community by at least following the laws. Unfortunately this is not happening.

"There are a lot of passage ways where people can pass from but unfortunately their access to public land is restricted because of some hunting activity. Keep in mind we are talking about five months in autumn and two weeks in spring. Now the spring hunting season definitely has an expiry date, I am sure of this, at least for the wrong reasons - the number of birds being depleted. Five months in the year is not a joke, it is almost half of the year.

"When you consider Malta's size, the fact that we are the most highly built-up country in Europe at 33 per cent, with the second being Belgium at roughly 13 per cent, this is not a joke. Therefore the excuse Malta is small so we need to give hunters their space, does not hold, if anything because Malta is small everybody should be able to enjoy the countryside and not just a few."

Mr Sultana went on to say that if hunters had to abide by the laws and be more constrained, while there being proper enforcement, the lobby group would lose strength.

"There are a number of hunters who if they can't shoot what they wish to, would not go out anymore."

Mr Sultana revealed that the Ornis committee, because it took so long to be formed, did not hold its usual meeting before the start of the season.

"We usually meet before the season to talk with the ALE officers to actually understand what numbers of police forces are available; we share information about the hot-spots and what our concerns are. This year it did not happen."

What BirdLife did manage to get is a meeting with the Environment Minister, which FKNK, Malta's biggest hunting lobby, did not turn up for.

BirdLife Malta has launched a crowd-funding appeal to help it finance the activities it carries out in rehabilitating, providing shelter and caring for many injured birds that come into its care. Just this week it rehabilitated one of the flamingos that was shot down, expecting it to continue on its journey after it enjoyed a good rest.

It is appealing for anybody who would like to help BirdLife Malta continue such activities, donate on www.zaar.com.mt/projects/isavebirds/

 



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