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Illegal hunting rampant in Malta

The spring hunting season in Malta which has ended can reasonably be described as one of the worst seasons in recent years. Illegal hunting was rampant, enforcement left much to be desired, whilst bird guards both local and foreign were threatened on several occasions. There were even cases where bird watchers and NGO officials were arrested. There was also the case of the BBC journalist who was called in for questioning at the Police Headquarters.

A coalition of local groups came together to collect signatures calling for a referendum on spring shooting. The necessary signatures were collected and officially presented to the government. But Prime Minister Joseph Muscat did not rule out the possibility of changing the abrogative referendum law to block the referendum on spring hunting, as proposed by the hunters’ federation. 

The hunters’ federation is also collecting signatures to try to prevent a referendum being held and the government told them informally that if they manage to gather several thousand signatures the blocking of the referendum will be seriously considered. However the Prime Minister insisted that spring hunting must continue, irrespective of whether a referendum is held. On the other hand in their election campaign for MEPs which will take place on 24 May, the Green Party has already declared itself against spring hunting and in favour of the referendum, whilst the National Party is trying to avoid the issue because they are more in favour of reaching a friendly agreement with both the hunters and the NGOs. 

During this year’s season, illegal hunting was reported to the police on several occasions by both local and foreign groups. As in previous years the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) held its Bird Guard Camp. During this camp they discovered a significant number of bird callers. Reports were passed on to the police but enforcement was very poor. It was only during the last two nights before the close season that CABS bird guards were asked to assist the ALE (wildlife police) in finding and removing illegal bird callers and nets for bird trapping. The action, which was named Operation Silent Night, resulted in the removal and confiscation of 11 electronic lures and nets from various areas which were indicated by CABS. It was deeply disappointing that the authorities did not act from the very beginning of the season or when the information was available. It is a known fact that CABS mapped all the callers they discovered during their night operations and these reached a three figure number. All information is now in the hands of the police. 

Following what happened during this season local NGOs continue to fight against both the killing and the derogation to EU law allowing spring hunting. Recently they presented a legal challenge to Malta’s decision by filing a Judicial Protest in the Maltese courts arguing that successive Maltese governments have repeatedly failed to satisfy the conditions of Malta’s own national framework legislation which stipulates that, for spring hunting to be considered legal, there must be no detrimental impact on the European populations of the species being hunted. 

On the other side of the continent similar arguments were put forward to the EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik on behalf of 39 MEPS from 11 different countries who signed the letter calling on the EU Commission to take immediate action against any further derogation to allow spring hunting in Malta. 

On a more positive note, after insistence from CABS a large illegal Turtle Dove trap which was discovered in Gozo was dismantled by the police. The trap was over eight metres in length. The operation was carried out by members of the Armed forces and the ALE police and the birds found in the nets were released later in the season. Prior to this operation the hunter approached the birdwatchers, violently shouting and swearing and pushing a female CABS member from Scotland. The man then threatened to kill the team leader of the CABS patrol but the group managed to leave the area. Shortly afterwards, the same hunter stopped the CABS members as they were driving in the vicinity and again threatened to kill them, swearing at the team leader to ‘go back to his own country´. Both incidents were reported to the police. The hunter admitted the charges and apologised to CABS and they chose not to press charges. 

A couple of days before the camp came to an end, when the season was already closed, CABS found another “Bird cemetery” in the Mizieb woodland which is managed by the hunters. In all they found at least ten protected species including five Marsh Harriers, one Montagu’s Harrier, one Honey Buzzard, one Hoopoe, a Cuckoo and a Nightjar. These were all found hidden underneath some stones. Two of the birds had clearly come from this year’s spring season whilst the rest were shot and killed during last autumn. The police were called when the first bird was found and all the carcasses were seized as evidence. The number of birds found was much lower than those found in the same area in 2009 and 2010. During these years most of the Mizieb area was searched whilst this time only a very smal portion of the area was searched. CABS are insisting that an inquiry must be held in the whole of MIZIEB which is run by the hunters and a report published. The 2009/2010 reports of the findings have never been published.

Even two or three days after the season had ended shots were still being heard each morning in various parts of the island, particularly in the south of Malta and Gozo. So far only one hunter has been apprehended by the police during the close season, in spite of the fact that, on the first day of the close season when the weather was extremely good for migration, hundreds of shots were heard in the south of the island. Sadly illegal shooting is clearly still rife in Malta.