BirdLife take government to court over turtle-dove shooting season

BirdLife is asking the Courts to declare the practice illegal, with a view to end the hunting of turtle-doves in spring ‘once and for all’

The controversial decision to open the spring Turtle-dove hunting season earlier this year is to be challenged in court by BirdLife Malta.

Earlier this year, in April, the Ministry for Gozo and the Environment Ministry declared open season on the vulnerable bird species.

BirdLife Malta said it is challenging this decision and “is asking the court to declare this practice illegal, with a view to end the hunting of Turtle-doves in spring once and for all.”

The European Union’s Birds Directive prohibits bird hunting during spring, a time when birds are heading towards their breeding grounds, but so far, Malta has invoked a derogation granted during its accession to the union.

BirdLife Malta argues that the hunting of Turtle-dove, which is listed as a vulnerable species, breaches the Birds Directive. “European directives are the highest level of law for every EU Member State, superseding also the national Constitution. As a European Union Member State, Malta has the obligation to adopt and abide by all the EU Directives including the European Birds Directive,” CEO Mark Sultana said,

The species’ protected status was weakened after the 2015 referendum on spring hunting, BirdLife said, leading to it being declared a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“This, however, did not affect the Maltese government at that time, and hunters were still allowed to kill Turtle-doves in spring. In fact, when Malta opened its last spring hunting season for the Turtle-dove prior to the self-imposed moratorium in 2016, the European Commission had set the wheels in motion to initiate legal action against Malta. This was shelved by the Commission once the Maltese Government cunningly created the moratorium.”

Sultana said that in the 2022 electoral campaign, both Gozo and environment ministers Clint Camilleri and Aaron Farrugia had repeatedly promised that the open season for Turtle-doves would be opened again in the following spring. 

“The promise was kept. After being re-elected, the government lifted the moratorium, paving the way for it to open a spring hunting season for Turtle-dove once again. In view of this scenario, although there are indications that the European Commission is considering opening an Infringement Procedure against Malta, BirdLife Malta feels it has an obligation to also fight such illegalities at the national Law Courts,” Sultana said.

Sultana also stressed that the Maltese judiciary was responsible for directly enforcing the Birds Directive. “The national law courts have the responsibility to safeguard the values of the European Directives. They cannot transfer this responsibility onto the EU Courts, especially when EU citizens and civil society demand it.”

“Malta’s Courts can always ask the European Commission to act as a court expert, to explain why such a hunting season during the breeding season on a bird species which is scientifically proven to be in a Vulnerable status, breaches the European Birds Directive. No small number of birds shot can justify this derogation, let alone a political decision that aims only to appease those that promised their votes.”

Lawyers Dr Mark Soler and Dr Claire Bonello are representing BirdLife Malta.