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NEWS | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Hunting: the shortcut to extinction

HARRY VASSALLO traces the rise and fall of the Maltese hunter from Neolithic times to EU accession in 2003

Our earliest ancestors graduated from being a vegetarian, tree dwelling species to a savannah-roaming scavenger opportunistically exploiting the kills of predators and finally becoming a fully fledged hunter, a true predator.
Climbing up the food chain gave us more options allowing us to venture far and wide to populate the earth.
There can be no question that we are all descended from these early hunter gatherers; but this does not mean that we are all still in that condition. In fact the remaining hunter gatherers today are endangered cultures wherever they may be in the world.
The rest of us rely on agriculture for our food, and hunting has long been a mere pastime. The sport of kings for long centuries, it is now well within the reach of anyone at all, anyone with a penchant for tracking down and killing something for the joy of it.
From there to here has been a long journey in which we gathered considerable speed in the last few decades. Consider only that the population of these islands in Neolithic times is estimated to have been no more than 10,000: half the current population of Gozo. It had reached the 100,000 mark around the time of the insurrection against the French in 1798. Today, we are over the 400,000 mark.
While the hunting of deer, wild rabbits and birds may have been a significant food supplement in Neolithic times, since Norman days at least it has been the privilege of the elite, the aristocracy, jealously guarded against all comers with dreadful punishments for poachers. Buskett Gardens, the Grandmasters’ hunting reserve, was planted to provide our Prince with a miniature forest such as those enjoyed by his royal counterparts abroad.
From the earliest times hunting has been strictly regulated and the battle between poachers and enforcers is not a modern phenomenon. However the struggle between haves and have-nots in the hunting world has become a struggle for survival between an uneasy alliance of hunting conservatives and hunting bandits against modernity and an unforgiving reality.
Ironically, the number of hunters has increased dramatically just as the space available for hunting and the number of game birds have dwindled to almost nothing. Only a generation or two ago the privileged classes who could afford to transfer to the countryside for the hunting season suffered the competition of just a few peasant farmers and villagers who travelled to the hunting grounds on foot. The advent of the motor car and increasing affluence made everywhere accessible to everyone. Better working conditions secured the opportunity for aficionados to book their leave in the shooting season, unlike their forbears who were bound to a hand to mouth existence and could not spare the time for roaming the countryside, gun in hand.
Even as we completed the shift from an agricultural to an urban society, the need for some of us to be close to nature, aware of the changing seasons, to develop weather wisdom and rural skills – such as the ability to recognise birds at great distances – took on a new urgency. The contrast between a clerical or an industrial job and the freedom of the wide open spaces gave hunting, a legitimate lone escape into nature, the power of an addiction.
Acclimatised city dwellers who associate the countryside with discomfort, buzzing insects and heat in summer and wet, windy days in winter, may find it hard to understand the passion with which hunters and trappers fight for the survival of their pastime.
While media consumers see only the results of hunting, butchered birds and defiant killings of protected species, hunters feel the injustice of being unable to communicate that their interest goes far beyond the killing.
They are also caught between the wish to make others understand their passion, and keeping it for the initiated. Most of the fun consists of being part of the exclusive hunting fraternity, sharing its language and customs, being an expert at everything associated with it: from the handling of firearms, to the association of weather patterns, to the migration events of the various avian species, camouflage, bird calling and dog handling. When challenged, it is all recalled in a rush and sticks in their throat. Finally they shrug and tell themselves that it is impossible to make outsiders understand.

Regulating the un-regulatable
Before the onset of recent hunting and trapping regulations, practitioners were an obscure and largely ignored sect. They paid their gun licence and disappeared into the countryside at the crack of dawn, returning discretely as the working day got under way. It was often a surprise to learn that one’s friend or neighbour went hunting, a mere curiosity.
Once a hunting season was imposed and certain species of birds given legal protection, a vast archipelago of one-man republics began to coalesce under the influence of their growing self-perception of being an oppressed minority, themselves an endangered species.
War was declared. It has raged on for years now. At first the bird-lovers were better organised and better funded, part of an international lobby... then the hunters and trappers found their feet and discovered that they were many and powerful. A transformation had taken place. Hunting and trapping were no longer the pursuits of loners. Committees were formed and minutes taken, meetings held and international associations contacted.
In the process, the myth of the folkloristic hunter, part of our collective nostalgia for our agricultural past was transformed also. The almost secretive community became loud and aggressive, a threat to law and order, defiant in the killing of protected species and outrageous in violent protests. The myth had killed itself.
Until the 1996 election, restrictions on hunting had continued to increase after the first shock of new regulations in the early 1980s. In the election campaign of that year the hunting issue became a major political element with the MLP promising significant relaxation of the rules. Labour won and the shock to the PN system meant that the 1998 election campaign was fought with both PN and MLP promising the moon to the hunters and signing secret agreements with them. Politics had reached its lowest ebb and hunters had attained dizzying heights in the political game.
Having both government and opposition at their feet must have been an intoxicating experience for their leaders, an inebriation they enjoyed right through Malta’s EU accession process. Evidence of this was the dedication of time and effort during the accession stakeholder consultation process. Far more was dedicated to the hunting issue than to any other and nearly all others were of far greater importance.
What was negotiated, the undertakings made and how they were neglected may remain a matter of obstinate controversy for many years to come, however the future of hunting in spring was sealed in 2003, when the Maltese opted for EU membership.
The current political dithering about banning spring hunting outright and for good is simply a long drawn out agony, a good case for political euthanasia. The political epilogue in the hunting saga was acted out in the 2004 EP elections when that hunting lobby contested and was drubbed at the polls.
The war is lost and those who keep up the fight provoke more a mix of pity and irritation than dread. Hunting in Malta is far from ended, but a distant end is in sight and we all know it. Left with just the autumn migration to sustain it, its eventual demise is merely postponed by the irreducible nostalgics. Perhaps we have come full circle with pathos taking over from nostalgia: the impact of hunting in Malta may very well be negligible in the overall scenario but hunters have squandered the public sympathy they may once have enjoyed and the tactics adopted in the war they have lost may have cost them their survival.



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