Interview | Sunday, 27 September 2009

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A-hunting we will (maybe) go...

What do the 2003 EU referendum and the 2009 ECJ spring hunting verdict have in common? Both were hailed as ‘victories’ by the two opposing sides involved. FKNK secretary LINO FARRUGIA on why hunters now expect spring hunting to be reinstated as usual next year

Don’t be fooled by the surly expression: Lino Farrugia is actually smiling on the inside.
And with good reason, too: not only did last week’s European Court verdict defy expectations by declaring autumn to be “insufficient” an alternative to spring (as the hunters’ federation has argued from day one); but it also indirectly “advised” the Maltese government on how to actually go about applying a derogation in future, so as to avoid any subsequent infringement procedures.
Certainly, it is a slap in the face for the many thousands who once looked towards Europe as the only hope for lasting change in the local hunting situation... knowing full well that neither of Malta’s two main political parties would ever “bell the cat”, as it were, on its own initiative.
But for the Federation of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists (FKNK), the ECJ verdict has finally eclipsed any excuse the government might have had to avoid opening the spring hunting season next April.
“The Maltese team of lawyers managed to convince the court of our unique situation in comparison to other member states,” Farrugia tells me when I ask for his interpretation of the ruling. “This time – unlike the accession negotiations – we were involved in Malta’s defence preparations from day one and at all the crucial stages, and our lawyers were capable of transmitting the correct information to the Court.”
It seems that Lino can’t resist a Parthian shot at BirdLife Malta, which also supplied technical information for the court’s consideration.
“The Court decides on what it considers to be the most reliable information possible. Birdlife also supplied data, but our figures were based on a survey conducted in 2007 using the carnet de chasse (bag count) of 8,245 hunters. We could have used a smaller sample, but we wanted to get the most accurate estimate possible. Automatically, the Court opts for figures which can be verified, and therefore based its ruling on our data, and not on Birdlife’s...”
In a sense, however, we are both jumping the gun. At the end of the day there is a difference between “being able” to do something, and actually doing it. Government has so far avoided committing itself to opening next year’s spring season; in fact, it has not commented on the ECJ verdict at all. And meanwhile, various conflicting reactions have surfaced. For instance, one cartoon in the press depicted spring hunting as the subject of school history lesson; and elsewhere, MPs on both sides of the House have claimed that the ECJ had “decided for the government”, by ruling against spring hunting.
So what happens if these interpretations turn out to be correct? After all, it was only two years ago that the spring season was cut short by two weeks, and the hunters’ reaction was to descend en masse upon Valletta for a protest that quickly degenerated into an unsightly fracas. If that was their reaction to an early season closure... how will they react if next year’s season does not open at all?
“All the hunters who threw bottles at the police were later identified and arrested,” Lino quickly points out when I remind him of the unruly scenes in Valletta in March 2007. “We do not condone this kind of behaviour, though you have to also understand the frustration and anxiety of hunters at the time...”
Farrugia also adds that his federation has since that day worked hard to avoid a repeat performance of the 2007 debacle... admitting in the process that his federation’s control of its more violent members is less than absolute.
“I personally would not have run the risk of a public protest in 2008, when the spring season did not open for the first time,” he adds ominously. “Listening to the way some of our members were talking back then, there’s so saying what might have happened...”
But how does he account for so many conflicting reactions of the same ruling? Lino shrugs, as if to suggest that he is used to such apparent distortions of hunting-related issues by now.
“I don’t know,” he says with an air of resignation. “Even Simon Busuttil recently wrote an article called ‘Is spring hunting history?’...”
This is doubly significant: Busuttil, when still MiC director, had promised that EU accession “would not affect spring hunting,” and was subsequently lambasted by hunters and environmentalists alike for supplying misleading information.
“I can’t understand why he’s talking like this now,” Farrugia adds with reference to Busuttil’s latest article. “In fact I told him so myself: he should be blowing his trumpet about this verdict, as it vindicates of his own arguments, and those of Eddie Fenech Adami, before the 2003 referendum...”
On the subject of pre-electoral promises: this week, FKNK released details of an internal survey regarding how hunters voted in the June 2009 European Election. With visible satisfaction, Lino reminds me how a staggering 94% of the FKNK’s 12,000 members had obeyed the federation’s directive, and voted for any or all of six individual Labour candidates who had promised to help the hunters’ cause.
But why bring this matter up now? Isn’t this yet another case of hunters trying to blackmail the party in government?
“If we really wanted to blackmail the political parties, we would have released this information just before an election, not now,” Lino replies with hint of impatience. “Besides, when we deal directly with politicians, they always tell us they are ‘scared of losing the environmentalist vote’... Isn’t this blackmail, too? Or is it only blackmail when it is hunters who threaten politicians, and not environmentalists?”
Nonetheless, the point behind this week’s press conference was clear. Hunters remain a political force to be reckoned with, regardless of certain snide remarks about Lino Farrugia’s own disastrous candidature for the 2004 European elections.
“When I contested the 2004 election, I got just over 3,000 votes. Yes, a lot of people said I was a flop. Personally, I did what I felt was my duty.”
But for those who concluded that his personal result spelt the end of the FKNK as a political lobby group, Lino advises them to think again.
“Our members expected us to contest again this year, and this time round – with everything that has happened in the past four years – we knew we would have got about 8,000 votes. But we decided against contesting. We kept our feet on the ground - even with 8,000 votes, it would have been impossible to get elected. So we advised our members to vote only for those candidates who had individually approached us and offered to help in various ways.”
As it happens, all were Labour: John Attard Montalto led the pack, having had no fewer than 12 private meetings with hunters before the election. Other candidates included Sharon Ellul Bonici, who offered technical assistance securing a derogation if she got elected.
“Again, the election result speaks for itself. Not only did 94% obey our directive, but the candidates we pushed did better than the candidates who declared themselves against hunting.”
Having said all this, there are limitations to the political parties’ ability to accommodate the hunters, and this was made clear even by last week’s ECJ verdict.
The European Court appears to have confirmed that derogations are indeed possible within the framework of EU membership – but only within very strict limits, which may not be acceptable to all hunters alike. For this reason, a return to the wholesale “free for all” (Lino’s words, not mine) of the notorious 1980s is no longer a possibility.
“We know we can’t have two whole months in spring, as we have always had in the past. We know the derogation will only be justified with limited numbers of hunters. We also need to introduce bag limits, among other measures that will restrict hunting...”
One of the conditions for any future derogation is a strict system of surveillance. This remains a highly contentious issue, in a country where there are only 28 Administrative Law Enforcement officers to police over 14,000 hunters and trappers. I ask Lino if he is satisfied with the level of law enforcement currently in place.
“No, I don’t think there is enough enforcement. I say this with full respect for the ALE, which performs miracles with the resources they have. But we have been asking the government to strengthen this unit for ages, and do you know what they keep telling us? That the ALE has as many officers as the Drug Squad! But there are thousands of hunters, and thankfully, a lot less drug traffickers. The Drug Squad does not need as many officers as the ALE...”
In a rare conciliatory moment, Lino also suggests that his federation is in full agreement with BirdLife, at least on this one issue.
“When Birdlife called on government to set up a ‘Wildlife Crimes Unit’, the words were different, but effectively it’s the same thing we are asking for, too,” Lino begins.
The FKNK’s demands, which so far have not been met, include dividing the Maltese countryside into districts, and assigning a uniformed police officer to patrol each district.
“It doesn’t matter if the policeman can’t tell the difference between a sparrow and an eagle. His presence alone will serve to get hunters to behave themselves. We saw this in 2007 in Gozo: illegal hunting decreased drastically when there were uniformed police patrolling.”
I ask Farrugia how many FKNK members are also police officers, and if this strategy is likely to work when individual policemen may be reluctant to proceed against their “colleagues”. But Lino is reluctant to go into that kind of detail. Instead, he insists that hunters are now more willing than ever to “self-regulate”.
“In the past it was unheard of for a hunter to report another hunter to the police. Now, it’s happening more often. As time goes by, more and more hunters are realising that the actions of the few will affect their own pastime. They say to themselves: ‘because of this fool, I run the risk of losing my entire pastime’. So they would prefer the ‘fool’ to lose his licence, then for everyone to lose their spring hunting season.”
On to trapping now, and it seems that government intends to ‘apply a derogation’ for the trapping of four species: quail, turtle dove, song thrush and golden plover. On 18 August this year, a notice was issued urging hunters who “wished to make use of this derogation” to renew their licences at the nearest police station.
Farrrugia himself reconfirms statistics release by FKNK last year, according to which only around 500 of Malta’s 4,000+ trappers were licenced for the above four species. The rest were licenced to trap finches - now illegal throughout the year. But MaltaToday has meanwhile found out (five weeks after requesting the information from the police) that 1,266 licences have been renewed since 18 August: i.e., more than double the original the original 500 practitioners of this “specialist” hobby.
Isn’t this an indication that at last half these trappers intend to take advantage of this “derogation” to carry trapping finches illegally?
“That is how it will be interpreted – no doubt about that,” Farrugia replies with a wry smile. “Most of the licence-holders would be finch trappers, yes; but it doesn’t follow that they want to use their licences to continue trapping finches. Many of them reason like this: if we can’t trap finches anymore, at least we now have another form of trapping to practice...”
Farrugia also argues that the new licence conditions make it “easier said than done” for trappers to exploit any loopholes.
“The same legal notice also issued new regulations which make it difficult, if not impossible, to illegally trap finches. The minimum net mesh-size is now 30cm: large enough for a small bird to escape. Besides, you need a live decoy to trap a finch... or an electronic recording. Both are now illegal. Don’t forget Malta is a small place, which means that these things are visible to anyone who looks...”
It transpires also that a trapping licence costs a measly €13.98 a year. Doesn’t this encourage larger numbers to apply for licences, when the only realistic chance of securing a derogation is that the number of licensees would be limited?
Surprisingly, Lino Farrugia explains how his own federation had urged government to raise this paltry fee... to an astronomical €235 a year.
“We asked our members if they would be willing to pay that much for a trapping licence, and they all told us ‘just do it’,” he says. “Never mind, though, that some of these same members would leave our federation and join another group, simply because the membership is €1 cheaper...”
Lino argues that with the increased revenue from trapping licences, government would be able to finance the strengthening of the ALE, as demanded by both FKNK and Birdlife... but to no avail.
Meanwhile, this week the newspapers were dominated by Birdlife Malta’s discovery of over 200 bird carcasses – all protected species – in Mizieb: an area officially managed by hunters since 1986. Lino’s reaction?
“Look: this week we asked the police to investigate, and as I have said before, until the investigation is concluded I don’t think I should comment. But I do find it strange that hundreds of families would visit the place and have barbecues every weekend, and never reported any dead birds... and then in a single week BirdLife and their foreign friends would find 200! And is it a coincidence that this happened now, so soon after the ECJ ruling? I am not saying that ‘they put them there’... but the suspicion that they were ‘planted’ has to be considered. Like I said, however, the case is now under investigation. Meanwhile I would like to make a final appeal to all our members: now, more than ever before, we will insist on zero tolerance of anyone who kills protected birds.”

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