The Malta Independent 2 February 2023, Thursday
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BirdLife Malta CEO speaks out about why it never presented motion for hunting season closure

Helena Grech Sunday, 8 October 2017, 12:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

A motion to discuss closing the hunting season has not been presented by BirdLife Malta to the Ornis Committee due to the committee’s ‘design’, resulting in the Prime Minister having a ‘clean sheet’ to keep it open despite the mounting number of illegalities.

“If we were to present this motion, and it did not go through, we would have given the Prime Minister a clean sheet – all the rights to say that he cannot close it because he actually has been advised not to,” says BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana.

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A law was passed in August 2015 giving the Ornis Committee, a body which oversees the conservation of wild birds, the power to recommend closure of the hunting season. The committee’s voting powers consist of one vote for BirdLife, one vote for the hunting lobby FKNK, one vote each for the three experts appointed by the government, while one casting vote is granted to the chairman, Dennis Montebello, if necessary.

So far this season, there have been 26 known cases of protected birds being shot. Last Thursday evening, an injured European Honey Buzzard was found by two students at St Edward’s College. It had been shot and is now being cared for and rehabilitated.

In April 2015, shortly after the referendum on spring hunting narrowly resulted in favour of the hunting lobby, a similar incident occurred with a protected bird being shot down over the same school, prompting Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to close the spring hunting season early.

Some controversy arose when this newspaper discovered that the Ornis Committee board had taken longer than expected to be reformed following the 3 June snap election. Due to this delay, the committee did not meet before the commencement of the autumn hunting season as it normally does to share concerns, information about hot-spots and updates on enforcement practices.

When the meeting finally took place some weeks into the autumn hunting season, towards the end of September, a government spokesperson as well as the committee’s secretary confirmed that the issue of discussing a recommendation for the closure of the hunting season was not raised.

While it is the government-appointed chairman of the Ornis Committee who sets the agenda, BirdLife Malta, as a sitting member of the committee, is well within its rights to present a motion to have this issue placed on the agenda and discussed.

At a press conference last Friday at St Edward’s College, where the discovery of the injured honey buzzard was described by the two students who rescued it, the Birdlife CEO described how, comparing the first five weeks of the autumn hunting season last year and this, in 2016 there had been five known cases compared with 26 this year.

In an interview with this newsroom, Sultana described how even the fact that the government has discussed a reduction in fines for hunters who break the law has resulted in a spike in the number of known hunting illegalities.

The Prime Minister made headlines when he said that the prerogative is on the Ornis Committee to recommend the season’s closure, and that the government would seriously consider its recommendation. This was categorically refuted by anti-hunting lobbyists and BirdLife Malta itself, contending that the law clearly states that the Prime Minister can unilaterally close the season with or without an Ornis Committee recommendation.

Throughout all this, The Malta Independent on Sunday has asked Sultana why he does not use his power on the Committee to present a motion for the season’s closure, especially in the light of the mounting number of illegalities.

He replied: “Because of the way the Ornis Committee is designed, it’s very difficult for something which we [BirdLife] want, something that goes against the political will, to actually be accepted.

“You have the FKNK who will vote against closure, then you have another three votes which are independent but normally very much inclined to vote in favour of what the government is saying. So it is very difficult for us to put it on the agenda.

“If we were to present this motion, and it does not go through, we would have given the Prime Minister a clean sheet, all the right to say that he cannot close it because he actually has been advised not to.

“What we are saying is that the Prime Minister has the right to close the hunting season, he has the responsibility to close it and, for the sake of consistency, especially after today, he should close it.”

The autumn hunting season is from 1 September to 31 January. So far, the protected birds that have been illegally shot, in chronological order and in what location, are as follows:

European Bee-eater – Ghaxaq; European Bee-eater – Dwejra, Malta; Grey Heron – De La Salle College, Vittoriosa; Night Heron – Mgarr ix-Xini; European Bee-Eater – Bidni, Marsascala; Marsh Harrier – Mgarr; Common Kestrel – Siggiewi; European Honey Buzzard – Gozo; European Honey Buzzard – Girgenti; Greater Flamingo – Hal-Far; Greater Flamingo – Marsascala; Grey Heron – Manoel Island; Grey Heron – Xghajra, Nwadar Park; European Honey Buzzard – Buskett; Purple Heron – Manoel Island; Common Kestrel – Mtarfa; Nightjar – Birzebbuga; Grey Heron – Zurrieq; Eurasian Hobby – Fawwara; Yellow-legged Gull – Qbajjar, Gozo; Eurasian Hobby – Dwejra, Malta; Eurasian Sparrow hawk – Bidnija; Rey Heron – Zabbar; European Honey Buzzard – St Edward’s College, Vittoriosa; Greater Flamingo – Hal-Farrug; Eurasian Hobby – location unknown.

Out of the 26 retrieved protected birds that were illegally shot, just two were retrieved by the police themselves. Do date, not a single suspect has been arraigned in court regarding the above incidents. 

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