Quail figures ‘belie need for spring hunting season’

Logic for spring hunting of quail now null and void, BirdLife argues, as autumn migration levels shoot up to 70,000 birds

During only four autumn hunting seasons from 2011 to 2014, hunters shot 17,333 quails
During only four autumn hunting seasons from 2011 to 2014, hunters shot 17,333 quails

The government’s decision to impose a moratorium on the hunting of turtle dove in spring means that hunters will, for the first time, only be allowed to shoot at quail when the spring hunting season opens in March. 

However, new scientific data on the migration of quail over Malta in autumn has raised questions on whether hunters should even be allowed to hunt quail in spring. 

Indeed the study – carried out by Ecoserv and commissioned by the government – indicates that 69,915 quail migrated over Malta in the 2016 autumn hunting season, up from 50,514 in 2015 and 54,683 in 2013. According to BirdLife Malta, this data renders the very grounds by which Malta is allowed to derogate from EU law banning hunting in spring – that not enough turtle dove and quail fly over the island in autumn – null and void. 

“The hunters’ legal argument in favour of a spring hunting season is that too few turtle dove and quail fly over Malta in autumn for the autumn hunting season to be considered a satisfactory alternative,” BirdLife chief executive Mark Sultana told MaltaToday. “70,000 quail is surely enough to be considered satisfactory.” 

Moreover, data gleaned from the hunters’ own catch declarations clearly show that hunters catch far more quail in the autumn than in springtime. During the spring hunting seasons of 2011 to 2016, only 1,926 quails were shot with the highest record being in 2014 when 637 were killed.

In contrast, during only four autumn hunting seasons from 2011 to 2014, hunters shot 17,333 quails.  

“Hunters are traditionally far more interested in hunting turtle dove than they are in hunting quail,” Sultana said. “There are around 9,000 licensed hunters in Malta and yet only 133 reported catching quails last year, compared with over 1,000 reported catches of turtle dove. Perhaps the government should consider only granting hunting licenses for quail to hunters who have shot at quail over the past three years.” 

However, hunting lobby FKNK dismissed BirdLife’s logic, arguing that the autumn and spring hunting seasons cannot be compared like with like, given that the former lasts for five months and the latter merely three weeks. 

“It’s easy to play with numbers and statistics, but one cannot compare and contrast a season that lasts five months with one that lasts 14 half-days,” FKNK chief executive Lino Farrugia told MaltaToday. “Moreover, the numbers provided by Ecoserv are extrapolated. From personal experience, I hardly encountered any quail during the last autumn season.” 

Increase in quail bag quota next season 

The government in May announced an indefinite moratorium on the hunting of turtle dove in spring, after the species was classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. To make the pill easier to swallow, the Ornis Committee – the government’s consultative body on hunting – has proposed that hunters be allowed to hunt twice as many quail this year. 

The seasonal bag limit is therefore set to increase from four to 10 birds, while the daily bag limit for individual hunters will increase from two to five birds. The national seasonal bag limit will remain unchanged at 5,000 birds – once this is reached, the government will be obliged to close the season. 

The FKNK hailed this decision as a victory of sorts, that partially compensated for the turtle dove moratorium. 

“Despite the comments passed by our representatives about the tradition of turtle dove hunting in spring, the Ornis committee wasn’t in a position to consider this proposal,” the FKNK said in a statement. “Despite these circumstances, we at least managed to successfully propose a quail hunting season with a larger and more reasonable bag limit.”

However, BirdLife warned that the increase in bag limits means that the government is risking a situation whereby the seasonal limit of 5,000 quails will be reached and exceeded without its knowledge.