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NEWS | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Our traditional way of life is under threat

MARK MIFSUD BONNICI and ALFRED E. ZAMMIT, two veteran members of the St Hubert Hunters, defend their pastime as a traditional way of life for them, and argue that Malta should qualify for a derogation from the Birds Directive to carry on hunting in spring

Your hunting association often argues that the case in favour of spring hunting has been misrepresented. Can you explain why spring is so important to Maltese hunters? What’s wrong with autumn?
MMB: Let’s start by pointing out that the Birds Directive allows for member states to derogate under certain conditions. Malta based its request for a derogation upon the argument that the taking of small numbers of two species – Turtle Dove and Quail – will not have any serious impact on world population figures; and more significantly, that owing to our unique geographical circumstances there is no “satisfactory solution” to spring hunting for these species. Other countries have successfully used their country’s particular conditions to obtain derogations from the Birds Directive. In the UK, there are 15 species of birds that can be shot all year round, not to mention the fox, rabbit and other wildlife...
AZ: Also, the impact of Maltese hunters on global populations is often exaggerated. It is not true (as Birdlife always claims) that Malta is on the ‘central European flyway’ for the Mediterranean. There are three main Mediterranean flyways: Gibraltar in the west; the Bosphorus in the east; and in the centre, the main flyway is really between Cape Bon in Tunisia and Marsala in Sicily – the shortest possible sea-route between Africa and Europe. Malta is located 300 km to the southeast of this passage. We only receive the tail end of the central European migration: if you see 100 Turtle Doves over Malta, it means another 10,000 will be passing over the sea to the east or west, without stopping. Besides, there is a fundamental difference between the dynamics of the September and April migration. In September there is no reason for the birds to stop over Malta at all. Sicily is only 60 miles to the north: the birds would have only just taken off by the time they reach Malta. They can continue flying without roosting. But not on the return journey. When Turtle Doves gather on the African coast to fly back to Europe in April, they will cross 190 km of open sea before seeing Malta. Then it’s a different story: they will be tempted to roost at the first sight of land...
MMB: To explain how it works in practice: I have been hunting for 40 years, and I only remember one single day in September that was comparable to one day in April. When you compare the entire season in autumn and spring, you will find there is no comparison. Autumn is simply no substitute for spring: in fact, we have even offered to sacrifice part of the autumn hunting season for the spring season...

Now that the case is before the European Court, what option did the government have but to announce that the season would not open this year?
MMB: Two things need to be clarified: one, the European court case is not going to decide on the legality or otherwise of spring hunting in Malta. It will only decide if the government broke the law when it opened the spring season in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. That’s all. The second point is that those four seasons were opened without any derogation report about the numbers of birds taken, which had to be submitted to the Commission according to the Birds Directive. This report for 2007 has now been submitted, which means the Prime Minister is not correct to state that ‘nothing has changed’ since the interim measures last year. It would have been more consistent with his party’s earlier position to announce that he would be opening the season in view of the submission of this document, and then close it only if the court issued interim measures again...

What does the report actually say?
MMB: We don’t know, since it was never made public. It was drawn up by Joe Sultana on behalf of Mepa, which (despite not understanding a thing about hunting) is the competent authority on environmental issues. Naturally I have a lot of respect for Joe Sultana, but he is a bird lover from top to toe. It is clear as daylight that the entire process has been a farce...
AZ: Another thing to bear in mind is that the recent case against Finland is now being cited as a legal precedent against Malta. However, the two cases are completely different. Before the referendum to join the EU, Finnish hunters were promised that theirs was a special case, and that they would be able to retain the right to hunt wild ducks in spring. However, as in Malta, they were the victims of political propaganda, and spring hunting became subject to infringement procedures.
The main difference, though, is the accessibility of hunting grounds. Duck hunting takes place along the coast, which is accessible to everybody. The same is not true of Turtle Dove in Malta... especially in autumn, which is what the European Commission claims is a valid alternative to spring. In September, doves tend to be seen only in specific areas on the western coast: for instance, the Fuqqanija area between Dingli and Siggiewi. For those of us who have land in other parts of Malta and Gozo: forget it, you won’t even see a Turtle Dove, let alone shoot one...

Most people seem to agree that illegal hunting is the root cause of the problem. How do you propose to control it?
AZ: In a meeting with Dr Lawrence Gonzi last June, we proposed setting up a committee within Mepa, composed of hunting experts, to advise government on all matters pertaining to hunters. There are plenty of issues that need to be addressed: licensing, gun importation laws, training for enforcement officers... but the Prime Minister said that Birdlife Malta would object. We haven’t heard from him since.
MMB: We also had a meeting with George Pullicino, in which we suggested that the money raised from licence fees (Lm19 each) be redirected to finance the setting up and training of wardens specifically to control hunting. But we were told that our licence money is already committed elsewhere, and the only other way to address our request was to increase the licence fee again. But this is not acceptable to us. After all, we are already volunteering to give up part of our autumn hunting season for spring, should spring ever be re-opened. We’ve already had our licences increased to Lm19 when in fact our hunting seasons are forever being shortened. And now we are expected to pay for the privilege of having more wardens, when the fees we already pay are directed elsewhere...

What sort of outcome do you expect from the case next May?
AZ: It’s hard to expect much when the case has already been vitiated by statements like the one by Commissioner Stavros Dimas, who went on record saying that he wanted to ‘make an example’ out of Malta. Even the European Court judge has publicly stated that to him, a bird’s life is more important than the “entertainment” of the people shooting them. This only illustrates crass ignorance of the reasons why we hunt. For us, hunting is not “entertainment”. It’s not like going to the cinema or watching a football game. For us it is a way of life. I know it’s difficult to explain, but when you’re out in your field on an early spring morning, you feel like part of spring itself. Buds on almond trees, fig trees sprouting leaves, the smell of fresh soil after recent rains... and shooting one or two Turtle Doves is a way of life that makes the Maltese spring for us. The feeling is not one of vindictiveness or cruelty. The real hunter will always respect the bird he kills. It is only those who should never have been licensed to carry a gun in the first place – and unfortunately there are many – who give a bad name to the rest.



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