Who calls the shots on hunting?

The government’s decision to impose a moratorium on turtle dove hunting speaks volumes about the bizarre political realities

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The government’s decision to impose a moratorium on turtle dove hunting, at the request of the hunters’ FKNK association, speaks volumes about the bizarre political realities that underpin Malta’s entire approach to environmental matters. 

On one level, one must welcome the decision. As a newspaper, MaltaToday has consistently demanded a ban on spring hunting, ironically for all the reasons now cited by the hunters themselves. It is unsustainable, as the recent (predictable) decline of turtle dove migration amply confirms. 

One must also credit the FKNK for finally acknowledging the reality of the turtle dove’s conservation status… even if the truth of this situation has been staring them in the face for years. 

But this in turn exposes serious flaws in the government’s decision-making process when applied to this issue. Scientists have been sounding warnings over the decline of this species across Europe for years; yet successive administrations have cynically made it a national policy to permit large-scale hunting for the same species during the breeding season.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has now reclassified the turtle dove – in Malta one of the two huntable species in spring, alongside quail – as ‘vulnerable’. Having ignored countless similar reports that predated this official reclassification, the government cannot claim to have been unaware that its own policy was directly contributing to the bird’s decline.

Even after a report by the IUCN showed that European turtle dove populations had plummeted by 80% in the past 30 years, the government still forged ahead with its decision to open this year’s spring hunting season. 

And to make matters worse, this decision was rubberstamped by the Ornis Committee: a supposedly independent regulator, where the hunters and government representatives – both now clearly in collusion – enjoy an absolute monopoly over the decision-making process.

The moratorium itself confirms the extent of this collusion: the government ignored successive demands for a moratorium when they came from BirdLife Malta, international conservation agencies, and newspapers such as this one. Yet the moment the hunters themselves made the same request, government performed an instant volte-face.

In this instance, the FKNK was given priority even over the European Commissioner for the Environment, appointed by the government itself. Mr Karmenu Vella had pleasantly surprised conservationists by calling for a moratorium on turtle dove hunting in spring. Like all the others, however, his entreaty fell on deaf ears until it was echoed by the largest hunters’ association in Malta.

This leaves little room for doubt as to who actually calls the shots, in at least this one sector. Sadly, it is not the only example of its kind. Just as the job of regulating the hunting sector was broadly fallen to the hunters themselves over the years – primarily as a result of both political parties’ habit of appeasing large and well-organised special interest groups – the regulation of the planning sector has also increasingly been taken over by those involved in the construction and development lobby.

Under the present government, the Structure Plan has even been rewritten to allow for ‘exceptions’ from policies aimed at protecting the natural, unbuilt environment. As a result, Malta has been flooded with applications for large-scale development projects which may well permanently alter the island’s character and physical environment.

This is to be expected, when decisions in sensitive sectors are taken under the influence – however indirect – of those with the most glaring vested interests. 

In this respect, the government’s environmental policy – with particular reference to the hunting issue – runs directly counter to the country’s commitments as an EU member state. Even without the moratorium, Malta’s insistence on permitting hunting in spring is itself a violation of European law. It is for this reason that a derogation is necessary – but this year’s derogation has not, technically, met with the Commission’s approval at all.

BirdLife Europe has argued the European Commission should still investigate Malta for potentially breaching EU law by permitting hunters to gun down 5,000 turtle doves during this year’s spring hunting season. It remains to be seen if the Commission agrees: technically, the moratorium imposed this week does not change the fact that the season was opened without an apparent justification. The Maltese government may have convinced itself that it met the conditions required for a successful derogation. But ultimately that is a call for the European commission to make.

This presents the Maltese Environment Commissioner with the opportunity to once again show his mettle. Then again, it shouldn’t have to be necessary. The government is still in time to reconsider its policy on spring hunting.

In defence of this policy, the government may well point towards last year’s referendum. But while it is true that a majority voted for Malta to continue requesting a derogation on spring hunting, it does not follow that the derogation must be applied for, regardless of the conservation status of species concerned… still less that it must be granted.

Moreover, the referendum was held at a time before the extent of the threat to this species was known. Had the question been, ‘Should Malta permit the hunting of a vulnerable species during the breeding season’? many who voted ‘Yes’ in 2012 – including many of the hunters themselves – would surely have voted ‘No’.

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