BirdLife upbeat about impending EU Court decision to ban bird trapping

A decision in the European Court of Justice could be about to make thousands of Maltese bird trappers very unhappy as hunting federation insists the practice is a traditional passtime the EU should protect

A decision by the court of the European Union could be expected to deal a deadly blow to bird trapping in Malta.

Conservationists BirdLife Malta sounded upbeat about an imminent decision from the European Court of Justice after a stern opinion from the EU’s advocate-general that the Maltese government had no justification to seek an exemption from the EU ban on finch trapping.

“I think the opinion of the EU Advocate-General has left little room for interpretation,” BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana said when asked if the ECJ could concede trappers a limited season to catch birds.

READ MORE • Bird trapping in Malta could be soon outlawed again after devastating EU court opinion

The Labour government came to power in 2013 with an intent to open the finch trapping season, outlawed since 2009 just five years after Malta became an EU member.

If the ECJ rules that Malta’s derogation from the trapping ban was illegal, the country could face fines of up to €1 million depending on the length of time Malta stays non-compliant, BirdLife said.

“The European Commission has insisted that birds cannot be trapped just for sheer enjoyment… the law strictly specifies that ‘judicious use’ must be made when derogating from the ban,” said BirdLife conservation manager Nick Barbara.

In 2014, the government’s new Wild Birds Regulation Unit allowed over 4,000 trappers a catch quota of 27,500 finches, with a maximum limit of 10 finches per trapper.

But BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana said trappers have never declared catching the full quota in any of the seasons since 2014.

“Enforcement is inexistent,” Sultana said. “The catch declarations are not believable. When you know there is low enforcement, you know you don’t need to declare the real catch figure. And this goes on year after year. Take as an example the last hunting season – so many protected birds were shot and yet nobody was caught.”

The EU immediately started an infringement procedure in 2014, but the trapping season has been reopened since then. Maltese trappers are allowed to register two trapping sites with up to four clap nets.

Just hours before BirdLife’s press conference, the hunters’ federation FKNK was telling the press that trappers had ended the season last December not knowing whether it would be their last.

Joe Perici Calascione, president of the hunting federation (FKNK) believes that at a time when the EU is giving importance to regional cultural diversity, the ECJ should not ban traditional finch trapping in Malta. “The trapping practice has remained practically the same for decades, having been passed down through generations and it would be a pity if the ECJ banned it,” Perici Calascione said.

He told MaltaToday that other EU countries had hunting traditions that were particular to them, which contributed to the bloc’s cultural diversity. Protecting a country’s cultural traditions is a principle defence argued by Malta at the ECJ in favour of retaining finch trapping.

Hunters often invoke the case of Austria, which has a very limited trapping season because it is deemed a UNESCO cultural practice. But BirdLife say the comparison pales.

“The clap nets are far smaller than Malta’s, it operates on a catch-and-release basis, and it is limited to just 500 birds,” Nick Barbara said, adding the impact on birds was far smaller.

Barbara said the EU Birds’ directive stated that trapping wild birds to be kept in captivity was not a ‘judicious use’ of wild birds.

“Trapping involves forcing wild birds into captivity, a stressful undertaking to a bird that has the liberty to migrate between continents. Most birds die within a few days of capture,” Sultana said.

When they do survive, they are sold between trappers and traded in markets and pet shops as domestic birds. Sultana says that Malta’s inexistent enforcement means the trade of these wild birds can be carried out in the open in places such as the Valletta traditional market on Sundays.

“People are trapping birds simply for the recreation. The thrill is the killing. On one hand we have had advances in animal welfare such as the banning of animal circues, and yet these advances have not reached hunting and trapping.”

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