There is nothing ‘sustainable’ about Maltese hunting

Does this exhibition actually explain to students, for instance, that Malta is the only country in Europe (in or out of the EU) that permits the LEGAL hunting of turtle-dove…  in Spring?

To be honest, my original headline for this article was: “There is nothing ‘educational’ about killing birds”. And as you might have guessed, it was intended to be about the ‘hunting exhibition’, currently being held (to much furore) in Gozitan primary schools.

But after typing it out, and staring at it for a little while… two things happened. One: it occurred to me that it didn’t really capture the gist of what I wanted to say (which is far better represented by the headline I eventually replaced it with).

And two: in a flash, I was beset by a distinct memory (actually, several) from my own primary schooldays, way back in the mid-1970s; and with hindsight – because it CERTAINLY never occurred to me, at the time - those memories might actually tell us something, about how our perception of ‘education’ has changed since then.

Let’s start with this. Like every other school in Malta, the one I went to [De La Salle College] would organise regular ‘educational field-trips’: mostly, to all the usual heritage sites you’d expect – like Ghar Dalam, Tarxien Temples, the War Museum, etc. – but also other places which were…

… well, kind of WEIRD, to be honest (even by the already-weird standards of the 1970s).

Like that time, for instance, when they felt it would be hugely beneficial for younger students to be exposed to the inner workings of Malta’s well-oiled industrial machine, by organising visits to factories, farms, industrial estates… that sort of thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there is certainly nothing objectionable about any of that. If nothing else, it might give those children a feel for how the ‘world of work’ actually operates, in reality (which is especially, because ‘young children’ have this irritatingly consistent habit of eventually becoming ‘grown adults’… who will sooner or later need a job their own).

But… seriously, though. Is it even possible that nobody within school administration, at the time, ever paused to consider that: maybe it’s not such a good idea, after all, to take schoolchildren as young as eight or nine, on an educational field-trip to...

…the CENTRAL CIGARETTE COMPANY LTD, of all unearthly places?! (You know: the factory where ‘Rothmans’ manufactures the product for which it is famous around the world… and which, let’s face it, is about as ‘suitable’ a destination for a school field-trip, as ‘a visit to the nearest Gentleman’s Club’…)

But this is what I meant, by ‘weird even by 1970s standard’. Because in case I’m giving the wrong impression: it’s not as though my school actually encouraged students to smoke, in any other conceivably way. Quite the contrary: I distinctly remember entire lessons, devoted to the subject of ‘how bad cigarettes were for you.’ And if you were caught smoking one yourself, during break? God help you (or what little remained of you, after your inevitable appointment at Brother Martin’s office afterwards…).

And yet: not only did the same school see nothing at all objectionable, in providing its younger students with an insider view of ‘how cigarettes are actually made’ – possibly, in the hope that some of us would be inspired to take up a career in that same industry ourselves (and who knows? Maybe some of us did…) – but as I recall, our teacher also regaled us with such purely ‘educational’ messages as: ‘Remember, boys! Industries like these are important for the economy, because they provide jobs that pay for all the health services, that people like you and me get for free…’ (or words to that effect, anyway).

Naturally, I recall no mention whatsoever, of the fact that the same industry was also directly responsible for literally billions of deaths each year: due to an undeniable link – already well-known, in the 1970s – between cigarette-smoking, and lung cancer…

… even if that same fact might easily have been drummed into our heads, for the umpteenth time, in class just the day before (likely as not, by one-and-the-same teacher)...

Weird, huh? No wonder my generation turned out as ‘messed-up’, as it did…

But the truly bizarre part of it all, is that – regardless how inappropriate a ‘school visit to a cigarette factory’ should have been considered, at the time (and certainly WOULD be considered, today)… I myself do not feel in any way ‘harmed’ by the experience.

On the contrary: I actually enjoyed that trip, quite a lot more than all the more ‘traditional’ ones. (Not because of anything to do with cigarettes, I hasten to add: but just because, as a small child, I was always fascinated by anything that had conveyor belts, pulleys, and wheels… and where ‘things go in one way, and come out the other’).

Certainly, I can’t claim that the experience inspired me to ever ‘work in the tobacco industry, myself’; and while I did, admittedly, pick up a nicotine habit of my own, in later years… I sincerely doubt it had anything to do with any ‘subliminal trauma’, that can possibly be traced to that one particular childhood experience. (Personally, I suspect it had a lot to more to do ‘growing up surrounded by cigarette-smoke everywhere you went, anyway… so what the heck? Might as well…’)

The bottom line, I suppose, is that: the ‘intended purpose’ of any educational experience – be it a field-trip, or an exhibition held on school grounds – can be… well, whatever the heck it likes, at the end of the day. The actual EFFECT that event will have, in practice, on all the children who actually experience it… that’s inevitably going to be ‘something else entirely’.

Which brings me back to the supposed ‘educational benefits’ of primary schools hosting exhibitions about hunting, with the blessing of the Gozo Ministry (which, in case you’re unaware, also doubles up as the ‘ministry responsible for hunting and trapping’).   

For reasons that (I hope) should be more or less clear, by now… I don’t actually disagree with KSU President Mark Mifsud Bonnici, when he argues along the lines that: ‘there is nothing wrong with educating schoolchildren about a reality which exists in our country’ (a reality which he himself describes as “the traditional culture of sustainable hunting and live-capture”, and the “culinary benefits” thereof).

And I actually agree with him wholeheartedly, on the following point: “Our children have every right to be given a factual basis upon which to form an opinion.”

But… well, he said it himself, right there: ‘a factual basis on which to form an opinion.’ And just as it is patently one-sided, to inform schoolchildren that ‘the tobacco industry is beneficial to Malta’s economy’ (while conveniently omitting the teenie-weenie detail, that it also ‘causes cancer’)…

… any ‘factual’ exhibition about Malta’s hunting and trapping culture, would also have to include mention of the EFFECT that this practice actually has, on local (breeding and migratory) birds. And let’s face it: this one didn’t get exactly off to a flying start, by claiming to be about ‘legal and SUSTAINABLE hunting’, did it?

But let’s just take a look at some of those effects. And let’s limit ourselves only to those birds that are LEGALLY huntable in Malta (in other words: I shall be overlooking the fact that hunting was also a prime factor behind the decline – and in most cases, eventual disappearance - of almost every single bird that has ever attempted to breed on this island: including the Barn Owl, Kestrel, Jackdaw and many more.)

Does this exhibition actually explain to students, for instance, that Malta is the only country in Europe (in or out of the EU) that permits the LEGAL hunting of turtle-dove…  in Spring? That is to say: during the bird’s mating season, no less; as if the entire purpose was to ensure that there will be fewer specimens next year - and fewer again, the year after that - because… um… well, we just keep shooting them all, don’t we? Without giving them a chance to even BREED…)

Honestly, I could almost stop there: because it is already manifestly unsustainable – indeed, it is the very definition of ‘unsustainability’ – to permit the hunting of any species (feathered, or otherwise) at a time when that species is actually trying to reproduce.

In the specific case of the turtle-dove, however: it’s a bit difficult to ‘stop there’, when you also consider that:

> European populations of turtle-dove have declined by an alarming 62%, since 1980;

> All the turtle-doves that are annually shot in Malta, in spring, would be heading towards their nesting grounds in Europe (i.e., where their populations are PLUMMETING);

> In 2015, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed the European Turtle Dove on its Red List of ‘Threatened’ species… and in 2019, that status was further downgraded from ‘Threatened’, to ‘Vulnerable [‘To Extinction’, please note]; and lastly…

> In spite of a European drive ban to ban all turtle-dove hunting, at all times of year, to at least give that species a chance to replenish its numbers… Malta’s government has so far consistently defied the Birds Directive, by opening a spring hunting season for turtle-dove each year… and has even come out with increasingly bizarre excuses (the latest being ‘for scientific research’, if you please) to continue justifying the unjustifiable.

… i.e., permitting the continued killing – year in, year out - of a bird species which is now officially classified as ‘endangered’.

So to return to my earlier question: does this ‘hunting exhibition’ explain all that – and more – to all the schoolchildren it is targeting? If so… I, for one, have no objections whatsoever.