Updated| Birdlife gives cautious welcome to hunting lobby's proposed spring hunting moratorium

Hunting lobby asks government to apply a moratorium on spring hunting,pre-empting infringment proceedings by the European Commission, but maintains its rejection of findings by international nature watchdog showing a sharp decline in European turtle dove populations.

FKNK CEO Lino Farrugia (fourth from right) addresses a press conference
FKNK CEO Lino Farrugia (fourth from right) addresses a press conference

In a statement issued in response to the hunting lobby's announcement of its intent to request a moratorium on spring hunting, BirdLife Malta welcomed the change of heart but declared that the Maltese Government "should have applied the moratorium a long time ago" instead of "waiting for a lobby group to pronounce itself, to take action."

At a press conference earlier today, the hunting lobby publicly asked the government to apply a moratorium on spring hunting to protect the sustainability of their hobby, a partial U-turn coming just over a year after it won an abrogative referendum on the abolition of spring hunting by the slimmest of margins.

Hunter's federation FKNK, however said it doubted recent scientific findings that show that European turtle dove populations have plummeted by 80% in the past 30 years, calling on the European Commission to “stop bullying Malta.”

Addressing a press conference this morning, FKNK president Joe Perici Calascione was at pains to point out that the organisation “is not agreeing with the government in suggesting a moratorium,” but the organisation needed more time to back up its position on the matter with scientific evidence.

The leader of Malta's foremost hunting organisation insisted that any cessation of hunting would be temporary. "We are informed the the EU has already threatened Malta with a pilot letter. If the matter goes to court and Malta loses, we will lose all derogations with it. The FKNK cannot dig our heels in, with this in mind. " Saying that he had opted for the lesser of two evils, Farrugia announced the moratorium and said he hoped it would be copied in other European countries.

That sentiment was echoed by FKNK's sister hunting organisation Saint Hubert's Hunters (KSU), who called upon hunting organisations in other EU countries to make similar appeals to their governments to implement measures to restrict hunting of this species to sustainable levels.

"Though hunting is a minor issue when compared to the main threats resulting from widespread bad agricultural practices and habitat loss, KSU commends the Commission’s pledge to “make full use of all its instruments to tackle all relevant causes for this decline,” said the organisation.

The FKNK too, said that hunting had an "insignificant" role in the species' decline, going a step further, casting doubt on the scientific data. “We absolutely don’t accept that the turtle dove is an endangered species,” FKNK chief executive Lino Farrugia told a press conference at the federation's headquarters. He explained that the classification of the turtle dove as a vulnerable species came right after last year’s spring hunting referendum and this “raises many doubts.”

Farrugia suggested that the IUCN had kept the data in reserve to use as ammunition in case the spring hunting referendum was lost.

The IUCN has urged the European Commission to request the closure of Malta’s spring hunting season so as to protect the turtle dove.

“Research is still ongoing as to why the turtle dove is declining faster than other migratory bird species, but there is already evidence which links the serious fall in numbers to agricultural intensification, diseases and over-hunting,” the IUCN wrote in a letter to European environment commissioner Karmenu Vella. “Until further research can be carried out to understand these threats and there is proof that can clearly demonstrate that spring hunting is sustainable, we consider the practice to be questionable.”

However, Farrugia urged the European Commission to stop using “bullying tactics” against Malta, its smallest member.

“2-3 million turtle doves are killed every year in Europe, while Maltese hunters are only allowed to kill 5,000 in spring. The percentage is less than 1% of the number of turtle doves killed in Europe every year. Accusing the Commission of using two weights and two measures,  Farrugia compared the 2000 derogations allowed to the UK to Malta's 2.

“If the situation was so bad that the shooting of 5,000 birds a year posed a threat to the species, then the IUCN should have come up with a plan to conserve the bird on a European scale, rather than simply picking on Malta’s spring hunting season.”

He accused BirdLife, Alternattiva Demokratika, the independent press, the Church and retired judge Giovanni Bonello of “conspiring” to ban spring hunting ahead of the referendum. In particular, he lashed out at retired judge Giovanni Bonello for having described hunters as “Neanderthals” during last year’s spring hunting referendum campaign.

"But in spite of all this, righteousness prevailed and we won the referendum," said Farrugia.

BirdLife Malta reacts

In a statement welcoming the hunters' change of position this afternoon, the conservation society had this to say: “Whilst shedding doubts on IUCN’s decision to list the Turtle Dove on its Red List of Threatened Species and on the timing of this decision, FKNK is now proposing to Government that the spring hunting moratorium on Turtle-doves is applied. This means that whilst up to now it was arguing that is was not true that the species is in danger, FKNK is now agreeing on the vulnerability of the Turtle-dove.

"BirdLife Malta has for a long time been insisting that the case against spring hunting remains one based on a single crucial principle – that in spring, the healthiest birds would be migrating north towards their breeding grounds.

"This apart from the fact that now we have scientific facts from IUCN that have not been contested. The fact that the Turtle Dove’s status has been changed because its population has declined considerably and is today in a vulnerable situation is not denied by anyone. Except, that is, for FKNK.

"Besides IUCN having international credibility, one cannot also ignore the fact that FACE (The European Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation) – of whom Malta’s FKNK is a member – is a partner in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"In view of all this, we expect the Maltese Government and the European Commission to listen to scientific facts and take action accordingly. Today’s development could mean that there is another reason for BirdLife Malta and FKNK to cooperate further in this regard.”