Updated | BirdLife to report magistrate to watchdog over controversial recommendations on trapping

Magistrate acquits man accused of illegal trapping... and sends recommendation to minister to look into the size of trapping nets recently increased to comply with EU orders

Magistrate Joe Mifsud
Magistrate Joe Mifsud

BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana has said comments by Magistrate Joe Mifsud in relation to case of illegal trapping will be reported to the judiciary watchdog.

Magistrate Joe Mifsud took it upon himself to issue “recommendations” to the parliamentary secretary for the environment, over the size of bird trapping nets and their effects on captured birds, after he acquitted a man of illegal trapping.

27-year-old Nadur resident Matthew Buttigieg was charged with illegal trapping back in March 2017 when he was accused of poaching in the San Blas area at around 4:45pm. Buttigieg had been filmed driving in the area by the conservationists CABS (Campaign Against Bird Slaughter) and reported for trapping.

In court, Buttigieg denied being the person filmed by CABS and said he did not own a trapping site in San Blas, but that he was delivering pizza to three elder residents of the area.

However, while acquitting over lack of evidence, Magistrate Joe Mifsud delivered a series of recommendations to the parliamentary secretariat, the Ornis Committee and the Wild Birds Regulation Unit on recent amendments made to Maltese trapping laws on songbirds, after the European Court of Justice ruled that Malta’s derogation from the EU’s ban on trapping was illegal.

Mifsud said the wider size for trapping nets, which have bigger holes to allow certain birds to evade being trapped, was “a form of abuse” because such nets were injuring the birds as they try to remove themselves from the net.

While the law now states that the mesh size for nets should not be less than 45mm x 45mm, the hunters lobby FKNK has lamented that this was too big and that Song Thrush could easily slip through.

In echoing this and similar arguments made in the Ornis Committee by the hunting and trapping lobby, Joe Mifsud also claimed that bird ringing, the scientific study of birds, should not be simply carried out by BirdLife only, citing an Ombudsman’s decision that had called for greater pluralism on ringing methods, on which organisations carry out studies and collect data on fauna populations.

“The comments of Magistrate Joe Mifsud in relation to a case of illegal trapping are totally inappropriate,” Sultana told MaltaToday when contacted for a reaction.

“Magistrate Mifsud opted to go beyond the sentencing of this case and come up with an unfounded opinion in relation to the size of the nets used for trapping, as agreed to between the government of Malta and the European Commission.”

Malta derogates from the Birds Directive to allow thousands of trappers to catch birds, which is itself banned by the same Directive.

“While the law courts’ important role in society remains to listen to cases and judge according to the facts provided, it should always keep at arms’ length from any controversial and possibly political topics,” Sultana told MaltaToday.

“Magistrate Mifsud has not done this and has risked his position as being seen as an unbiased person of integrity as should every magistrate be.”

Sultana also said his opinion relating to the scientific study of birds, known as bird ringing, echoed arguments made by the hunting lobby which has been trying to push for bird ringing to be allowed by them.

“BirdLife Malta has for over 50 years been part of the Europe-wide scientific study under the umbrella of the highly recognised body known as EURING. Hunters and trappers have, for a number of years, been trying to push for bird ringing to be allowed by them. BLM does not need to state the obvious reasons why this can never be acceptable,” Sultana said.

Sultana went further, remarking that Mifsud’s controversial recommendations over and above his sentencing, had brought in a topic unrelated to the case itself, leading BirdLife to further its suspicions on the real reasons behind this opinion.

“While it is clear that in our country there is a political will to please the hunting and trapping lobby, the law courts and the judiciary should remain always impartial to make sure that anyone breaking the law is met with the adequate consequences.”

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