Despite COVID-19 fears, Cabinet considers allowing spring hunting season

Cabinet requests urgent meeting of Ornis Committee, ‘Opening season would be most irresponsible act by PM’ says BirdLife


Two kestrels (first and third) and a marsh harrier shot down at Mtarfa and Dwejra
Two kestrels (first and third) and a marsh harrier shot down at Mtarfa and Dwejra

The Cabinet has requested an urgent meeting of the Ornis Committee, the consultative committee responsible for recommending whether Malta should derogate from the EU’s ban spring hunting.

Conservationists BirdLife are worried the move is intended at rubber-stamping a decision to open the season in April, giving hunters the run of the countryside at a time when law enforcement is occupied by the coronavirus crisis.

“Any decision by Prime Minister Robert Abela to consider opening this year’s spring hunting season for one species, the Quail, would be the most irresponsible act ever,” BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana said.

“Whilst the general public is being asked to stay at home in view of the global threat posed by the COVID-19 virus – with stricter rules issued just yesterday announcing that groups of four or more people caught in public will now be fined…”

Sultana said a derogation from the EU’s ban on spring hunting forces Malta to have seven police officers or monitors for every 1,000 hunters.

“In view of the fact that the police and security forces are stretched and involved in activities related to the COVID-19 crisis, it would not only be impossible for the police to enforce the law, but also a blatant lack of responsibility on the part of the Government if the season had to be opened now,” Sultana said.

BirdLife has already reported that hunters and trappers are openly flouting the law, going out hunting when this is prohibited at this time of the year, and many active trapping sites are illegally trapping many songbirds, when trapping in spring has been illegal for the last decade or so.

Just this weekend BirdLife Malta received another seven illegally shot protected birds – three Common Kestrels and four Marsh Harriers. All these were shot down between Friday and yesterday, and were confirmed as illegal hunting casualties by the government veterinarian.

“BirdLife Malta calls on the Prime Minister to show moral courage and take decisions in the general interest of the country. At this juncture, BirdLife Malta understands that the health of the country is a priority, but it cannot accept that the protection of nature takes the back-burner.

“The hunting and trapping lobby cannot continue to hold politicians at ransom and BirdLife Malta calls on the Prime Minister to take a clear and unequivocal stand in favour of all communities and nature in general.”

BirdLife is also insisting it is illegal for Abela to have placed the Ornis Committee, the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) and the Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations under Minister for Gozo Clint Camilleri, and not the minister responsible for the environment.

“According to Malta’s environmental laws, minister Camilleri does not have the legal remit to take decisions on hunting and trapping. We need to take action. The decision or consideration of opening the spring hunting season will take us back to the middle ages.

“BirdLife Malta is calling on the Prime Minister to openly state that the spring hunting season in 2020 will not be opened because the delicate situation we’re in today calls for restraint and responsibility,” Sultana said.

The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) joined BirdLife’s, saying that without strict supervision of police, they feared a sharp increase in hunting-related illegalities such as shooting protected species or using forbidden electronic lures.

CABS Wildlife Crime Officer Fiona Burrows said the last weeks had shown that poachers have already taken advantage of reduced police resources. Since 9 March CABS volunteers and staff witnessed, documented and reported 18 cases of illegal trapping and two cases of hunting during the closed season. “Illegal bird trapping is rampant and it’s obvious that the poachers know that the police have other priorities now. Opening the hunting season would only worsen this situation,” Burrows said.

CABS Press Officer Axel Hirschfeld criticised hunting organisation FKNK for their recent and repeated calls on the government to lift the spring hunting ban for Turtle Doves.

“This bird is on the way to extinction. By requesting a spring hunting season for it FKNK shows once again that they spit on responsible hunting and conservation and instead are solely focused on facilitating maximum shooting pleasure for their members.”

In the last 25 years Turtle Dove populations have declined by more than 80% in most European countries. In its International Single Species Action Plan for the conservation of the Turtle Dove, the European Commission has listed illegal hunting and trapping in spring as one of the three main threats to the survival of the species.

Alternattiva Demokratika joined Birdlife and CABS in insisting that the opening of the spring hunting season was uncalled for. “Hunters should be advised to stay indoors like the rest of us in conformity with the health authorities’ instructions,” AD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo said. “In should be also borne in mind that the Police are not in a position to carry out patrols to ensure adequate enforcement as is very evident from the multiple cases of illegal hunting reported in the past days.”