The Malta Independent 27 May 2024, Monday
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Gozo Ministry needs Minister Dalli’s assent when hunting decisions are taken – BirdLife

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 21 April 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The ministry responsible for hunting needs the assent of the ministry for the environment for any decisions taken on the sector, since laws pertaining to the hobby are, by law, under the responsibility of the latter, BirdLife contends.

This means that whatever Clint Camilleri decides as minister responsible for hunting needs to be signed by the permanent secretary of Environment Minister Miriam Dalli, not Camilleri’s own permanent secretary.


In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, BirdLife president Daryl Grima said that despite the law stating that the Wild Birds Regulation Unit should fall under the permanent secretary for the Environment Ministry, it is currently being overseen by the permanent secretary for the Gozo Ministry, which is also responsible for hunting.

The government can assign “hunting as a hobby” to whichever portfolio it deems appropriate, but whatever is decided, according to law, needs to be signed off by the environment ministry.

Grima said that when it comes to finances, the WBRU is resorting to the permanent secretary for Gozo. He added that even in decision-making, the Ornis Committee consistently refers to the permanent secretary for Gozo. But then, every subsidiary law specifies the Ministry for the Environment directly. Technically, the NGO could have challenged this anomaly in court, especially considering it is a constitutional breach, but its resources are limited.

"We have a law that focuses on the conservation of wild birds, not hunting and trapping. Its spirit is to protect birds. We are manipulating it so that the most important thing is hunting and trapping (of birds), and then after that, we introduce the conservation of birds, when it should be the other way around," Birdlife CEO Mark Sultana said.

He mentioned that currently laws are published jointly by the Ministry for Gozo and the Ministry for Environment, in conjunction with the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA).

"There is a democratic implosion here all the time," Grima said.

"Clint Camilleri is making the decisions, his permanent secretary is making decisions, and then he goes to (Environment Minister) Miriam Dalli's (ministry) and tells them to sign, and they do so at the end of the day," said Grima.

He mentioned that they are doing this because they know that when a legal notice is published, the Ministry for the Environment must be involved as a matter of necessity.


Photo: BirdLife


Under-reporting of bird shooting

Sultana said that the NGO is aware of under-reporting when it comes to bird shooting. Grima added that after many quiet days, somehow, "miraculously", during the last day of the hunting season, there is a spike in reporting.

Sultana suspects that this tactic is employed by hunters to show that hunting in spring is more efficient than in autumn. However, the NGO argues that if hunters were to hunt in autumn, they would catch more birds. Grima said that the whole system of voluntary reporting is flawed in itself.

"I am pretty sure that if a hunter shoots four turtle dove birds during the first day of the hunting season, if he reports anything, he is only going to report one, because he knows that if all hunters report four, the season would close on day one," said Grima.

Sultana added that it is a matter of discipline. He mentioned that the reporting system can only function effectively if there is discipline. To exacerbate matters, "there is a motivating factor to under-report because if you under-report, you are more likely to hunt again in spring and you don't demonstrate the true impact of hunting".

He also noted that the next bird species likely to become vulnerable will most probably be the quail because its numbers are in decline.


Photo: Aron Tanti


Future legal action

The president of BirdLife expressed that the NGO does not rule out any potential legal measures they might pursue "to defend our values". He clarified that there is often a misconception that Birdlife is against hunting, "when we are not". Grima emphasised that they are in favour of nature and asserted that they will do everything "at the opportune time" to defend it.

Sultana explained that following a 2017 moratorium on hunting, aimed at allowing the turtle dove species to repopulate, this ended in 2022, allowing for the spring hunting season to open. During that period, BirdLife had filed an application with the courts to obtain a prohibitory injunction, in an effort to halt the reopening of the hunting season for turtle doves. Sultana noted that this injunction was refused following an electoral campaign during which the Labour government had promised to reopen the hunting season. Furthermore, the court, in refusing to accept the request, noted that the prohibitory injunction request was filed after the legal notice, allowing hunting of turtle doves, was already issued, thus taking precedence. Despite Birdlife learning from its mistakes and requesting a prohibitory injunction in 2023, prior to the issuance of the same legal notice, this had also been rejected.

This year, the NGO once again requested a prohibitory injunction on turtle dove hunting, but again it was refused. When asked whether they would request another one in the years to come, Sultana said that if next year the government decides to reopen the hunting season for turtle doves the "chances are that we are going to have more obvious data (indicating that the turtle dove population is declining)", and so the NGO will indeed request that the season is not opened.

He mentioned that Birdlife had also initiated another case to challenge the hunting season, which is currently being overseen by Judge Mark Simiana. He noted that if the current ongoing case is won by Birdlife, there is a chance that the hunting season will not be reopened.


Photo: Mario V. Gauci


Turtle dove population recovery

On the recovery of the turtle dove population, Grima mentioned that current available data shows two flyways taken by turtle doves between Europe and Africa: the western flyway and the central eastern flyway, which includes Malta. He stated that in the western flyway, a moratorium was established and the population of the species increased.

"We are confident that if the same measures are implemented in the central eastern flyway, there will be an increase, because this is a bird that reproduces prolifically," he said.

Grima expressed his opinion that the turtle dove, also known as a “game bird”, has not been given the opportunity to recover its population in the central eastern flyway. He noted that, contrary to what happened in the central eastern flyway, in the western flyway they not only prohibited spring hunting but also stopped autumn hunting. Grima said that this effort dramatically increased the population of the turtle dove species.

The NGO president also mentioned that the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) data, available to the government, does not take everything into consideration. Sultana explained that Malta does not provide data to the scheme on the number of turtle doves bred in the country because unfortunately, the species no longer reproduces in Malta. Instead, Malta only reports on the number of deaths.

According to the NGO, the Maltese government is making a mistake by relying on old data from 2018, which comes from an obligatory European report issued by every member state every five years. The next obligatory report, which also provides data on the turtle dove population, was completed last year but is still awaiting publication after analysis. Additionally, this report serves as information for the country, and to estimate the population of turtle doves in Malta, data is gathered from other relevant countries such as Italy.

Because of this process, Sultana stated that the government must make many assumptions to produce data. Expressing doubt about why there is such a focus on Italian data on the turtle dove, the CEO noted that Italy struggles to gather accurate data on the matter, and "thus every year it shows it is stable, when in reality the bird (turtle dove population) is not really stable, because we know its numbers are decreasing". He mentioned that although it might be true that the turtle dove originates from Italy, it might not be the case that they are reproducing in the country.

He said that in order to reach these figures, Malta is relying on a lot of assumptions, and there should be the application of what is known as the precautionary principle.

"When you are making a lot of assumptions, you have to give the benefit of the doubt in favour of nature, of the bird," he said. The responsibility of not affecting the bird always lies with the state "and not the other way round". Furthermore, he emphasised that when making such decisions, one must "exercise caution" by providing the correct, most efficient and updated data that shows that the bird is not being adversely affected.

"When a bird is in a vulnerable position and when you are deviating from a directive (Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds), meaning you are derogating, you always have to take a precautionary approach," he said.

Quoting from the 2009 Birds Directive, Sultana noted that the directive prohibits hunting in spring and on bird species for which efforts from member states are being made to recover their population.

Sultana mentioned that the government is aware of this, and there are currently infringement proceedings against Malta, initiated by the EU Commission in 2023.

He mentioned that in this instance, Birdlife is providing a service to Malta by allowing the Maltese courts to intervene in preventing the government from obstructing the regeneration of the turtle dove, rather than resorting to the European court, which could be more costly for the nation.

Grima expressed his belief that the problem lies in how, during the last general election campaign, the Labour government had promised to open the hunting season. He stated that within this context, after being elected, the government instructed the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) to produce a report and methodology demonstrating that the hunting season could be opened, which, according to Grima, is an incorrect approach to science.

"We have a situation where a bird species is vulnerable and therefore should not be hunted, and there is a whole science behind it," he said.

He remarked that the data collected by the government is based on assumptions "simply to demonstrate that the hunting season can be opened, whereas science does not operate in such a manner".


The possibility of future referendums on hunting

Grima stated that Birdlife will never deny the possibility of another referendum as "it is our right".

"Contrary to what people say, a referendum can take place many times on the same subject," he said.

When asked about the ideal conditions for another referendum on the theme of hunting, Sultana explained that timing is important, especially since their current focus is to legally stop hunting during spring.

He mentioned that a referendum gives the nation a right "over and above the government". He noted that in the past, prior to the 2015 referendum, Birdlife attempted to persuade the government to oppose spring hunting "with science, but we weren't successful". The remaining alternatives included recourse to the people via a referendum and seeking resolution through the Maltese and European courts. The referendum was not successful, and the matter, as explained earlier, is before the courts.

He mentioned that currently, with an ongoing case in the Maltese courts, it is not the right time for a referendum to be held. He noted that in 2024, the NGO has a stronger legal stance than it did in 2015, particularly since the turtle dove is now recognised as being vulnerable. Sultana explained that the referendum in 2015 "was more about the principle, that we (Birdlife) wanted to convey to people that in spring, you shouldn't kill a bird but let it live".

The CEO expressed his perplexity, stating, "I do not understand how a hunter's brain works because, for me, it is very difficult to comprehend the joy in killing a bird". However, he acknowledged the possibility that certain hunters may prefer to exclusively shoot turtle doves. The pair suggested that hunters might derive greater enjoyment from shooting turtle doves because they present a more challenging target due to their speed, compared to quails.

Grima highlighted that Birdlife personnel are often labelled as “extremists”, but clarified, "we are in favour of nature". He said: "All we want is for nature to have its own space to exist, in the way it should."

Sultana said that the fact that Birdlife advocates for an end to spring hunting does not make the NGO extremist. He clarified that if Birdlife were truly extremist, they would, for example, advocate for all shotguns to be seized and thrown away.

"The spring hunting season on turtle dove has an expiration date; it will either stop because the Maltese courts say so or the European Court does or through a referendum or because the turtle dove becomes extinct," he said.

He noted that over 21 years, the turtle dove population in the central eastern flyway has been halved. Sultana explained that it only takes one severe drought season in Africa for the turtle dove population to halve again.

In a press conference earlier this month, Grima noted that Malta is the only country in the EU that allows spring hunting for turtle doves, which he considers the worst time to hunt this vulnerable species. He explained that during the last two weeks of April, when the birds migrate from Africa to the north, the species already experiences a decline in numbers due to natural selection during the crossing. He argued that hunting them in autumn, after natural selection has occurred and they have already bred, would be more appropriate.


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