The European Court of Justice published its judgement on June 21 on case C-557/15 “European Commission vs Republic of Malta” – to the joy of environmentalists and disdain among hunters. BirdLife Malta, the environmental NGO that has been pressuring for restrictions on bird trapping, applauded the decision saying that it will free large swathes of land in the Maltese Islands, authorised for trapping by the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU), and allow vegetation to recover. The majority of these trapping sites are on public land anyway.
Meanwhile, the Federation for Hunting and Conservation – Malta (FKNK), along with the European hunting lobby, FACE (The European Federation of Associations for Hunting & Conservation) pledged to fight the ruling, which they consider disproportionate, discriminatory and prejudiced in trying to implement a ‘counterproductive’ EU directive. FKNK, founded in 1973 to preserve Maltese traditional passions of migratory wild birds hunting and live-capturing for the purpose of keeping the caught birds captivity, is the largest NGO in Malta. The trappers appeal to cultural diversity in pleading EU institutions to allow sustaining the practice, and to the fact that trapping is allowed in Austria as a part of a tradition.
Linnet in a cage. Photo credit: BirdLife Malta
Meanwhile, BirdLife’s conservation manager Nik Barbara explains that in the eyes of the general public, trapping is seen as less damaging than hunting because birds are kept alive – at least initially. The reality is that trapping is the same as killing – most wild birds do not survive long in captivity. “Each season trappers go out for more birds,” he pointed out. “Each trapper is allowed to maintain up to four nets to catch birds, and they would be left for 2.5 months,” he explained, without the obligation to monitor them. Such non-selective nets can not only capture a whole flock of birds in one go, but also be dangerous to other wildlife, like hedgehogs and reptiles.
BirdLife Malta claims that many trapping sites are dangerous to wildlife
In 2003, in preparation for EU membership, the Maltese government stopped issuing trapping licences and negotiated a five-year phasing out period. But when it ended, trapping was made illegal. The government sought a derogation to allow trapping song thrush and golden plover only. In 2013, the new administration created a specialised unit called the Wild Birds Regulations Unit (WBRU) to seek a way to apply a derogation and reintroduce finch trapping. New trapping licences were issued again and a trapping season opened in 2014.
“The unit was the mastermind behind the derogation. We have asked the unit to publicise all the data regarding trapping sites – there was a registration system in place, and this of course constitutes environmental data, as they are authorising certain land use. We still don’t have this information available, even on public land,” Nik Barbara told Eve. The lack of transparency and enforcement was among the arguments the court used against the Maltese government.
Last year the journalist and environmentalist Chris Packham was acquitted after being sued for assaulting illegal bird trappers and trespassing as his crew filmed trapped birds on Gozo. The trapper was not charged for bird possession, but the journalist was. The Federation of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists (FKNK) accused Packham of “neo-colonialist behavior”.
Environmentalists maintain that trapping by net in Malta does not meet any conditions that allow derogation from the EU directive: neither absence of other satisfactory solutions has been proved, nor trapping is carried out in small numbers (10 birds per trapper per season, when only 23% trappers are subject to individual checks), nor is trapping selective the way hunting is, nor strict enforcement has become a reality.
As the decision is final, Malta is now obliged to implement it or face fines.
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