Spring hunting issue far from settled

 Despite a meagre season for migration this spring, hunters still managed to pepper the season with irregularities.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s decision to close the spring hunting season early, after a spate of illegalities, confirms that he was not bluffing with his earlier warnings to hunters.

Despite having galvanised support for the Yes vote through his declarations during the referendum campaign, Muscat must nonetheless be mindful that a large minority – 49%, including many Labourites – voted ‘No’ in spite of the bipartisan consensus favouring spring hunting. In a sense he has raised expectations on both sides: by aiding the campaign, he has imparted the impression that he sympathises with the hunting lobby. But by also taking a tough approach with the same lobby, he has signalled that he will appease a popular demand for more law enforcement and a zero tolerance policy towards illegal hunting.

It must be said that he was aided considerably in this decision by the hunters themselves, who had every reason to live up to the image they so successfully portrayed throughout the campaign. Even if the referendum veered towards the Yes in the final week, the result also amply confirms that almost exactly half the country had had enough of the annual litany of illegalities associated with spring hunting, and voted to abolish it.

This created an obligation among hunters to vindicate the referendum result by displaying that they could be trusted to conduct a single season without blemish. And yet, despite a meagre season for migration this spring, hunters still managed to pepper the season with irregularities. In the first three days there were already two cases of illegal hunting… and in the subsequent two weeks more wildlife crimes were reported, culminating in what can only be described as a ‘perfect storm’ to justify an early closure to the season.

The incident at which Muscat drew the line almost comes across as a parody of the entire hunting issue. After nine weeks of billboards assuring us that hunting was a safe and family-friendly activity, a protected kestrel was shot as it flew over a school, causing trauma to children who saw the bird land, still alive, in their playing field.

Three hunters have since been arrested in connection with the incident: one of whom has been charged in court.

So if Muscat was looking for a pretext to halt the season, they couldn’t have provided him with a better one. Describing the incident is ‘inexcusable’, he immediately closed the season. And in a rare display of bipartisan support, even the Opposition conceded that he literally had no choice. 

In one single incident alone, practically all the issues raised during the campaign seem to be reignited: concerns with safety, violation of public and private property, negative effects on children… not to mention flagrant disregard for the most basic of hunting regulations. 

Failure to close the season would have made a mockery of Muscat’s earlier, uncompromising commitment to law enforcement, and reinforced the popular perception that political parties are held to ransom by the hunting lobby.

Muscat’s act is therefore to be welcomed, even if it also exposes the sheer fragility of the absurd situation the Prime Minister faces after throwing his weight behind the Yes campaign last month. The referendum result has put a lid on the question of whether or not to apply a derogation for spring hunting: but it left us none the wiser regarding the precise conditions under which this would be considered ‘acceptable’.

Muscat had warned he would close the season in the event of ‘flagrant abuse’… but what constitutes ‘flagrant’? The incident described above would surely qualify… but it was excessive even by the standards of illegal hunting in Malta. Had it not occurred, but instead another cuckoo was shot at somewhere far from a school… would that have been sufficient to justify an early season closure? These questions remain unanswered even after Muscat closed the season. 

Meanwhile, the hunters’ federation FKNK has reacted by complaining about ‘collective punishment’. It is a frivolous complaint, given that the onus was very clearly on the FKNK to control its members (and the man charged with this crime was a licensed hunter, and therefore de facto a member of a hunting association, though not necessarily the FKNK). But they do have a point when they complain that the decision was arbitrary, and unsupported by any clear procedures or rules of engagement that are understood by everybody.

If Malta is to permit spring hunting for turtle doves and quails – as the referendum decreed – then the government is in duty-bound to establish clear and unequivocal parameters within which this activity can be performed. And if the government is to reserve the right to close the season at will, then it must also provide guidelines to define exactly what constitutes grounds for closure.

This is incumbent on the government even under the terms of the derogation from the European Wild Birds Directive itself. There are specific conditions that have to be met: including ‘adequate law enforcement’… which this season once again illustrated are still insufficient.

It is clear, then, that the referendum result alone has not settled the spring hunting issue. Unless present anomalies are ironed out, it will return to haunt politicians in future.

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