[WATCH] Brussels opens Malta infringements on spring hunting and finch trapping

European Commission says Malta is breaching Birds Directive with its spring hunting and finch trapping derogations • Government insists enforcement is more than requested by Brussels, while Birdlife says Europe seeing through Malta's absurdities

Updated at 6:15pm with Birdlife reaction

Brussels is taking action against Malta for allowing spring hunting without proper enforcement, as well as reopening a banned trapping season under the pretext of “scientific research”.

The European Commission told Malta that its derogation from the EU ban on the trapping of finches, ostensibly on research purposes, circumvents the judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU.

This is one of two infringement procedures against Malta, which reopened the trapping season despite an order from the European Court of Justice, “in similar conditions as before this ruling, even if under a different regime.”

Malta recently authorised finch trapping for research purposes, after having authorised finch trapping for recreational purposes for several years, an action which was found to be non-compliant with the Birds Directive by the Court of Justice of the EU.

Malta has also derogated from the EU ban on the spring hunting of quail every year since 2011 and derogations for autumn live-capturing of song thrush and golden plover each year since 2012.

“These derogations fall short systematically of the requirements set out in the legislation, related in particular to poor supervision of the conditions set out in the derogations, which results in other species than those targeted being affected,” the Commission said.

“Relying on insufficient or inaccurate information about the populations of wild birds and the available alternatives, Malta also failed to fulfil the basic conditions for granting such derogations.

“Not least, the high numbers of wild birds illegally shot in Malta constitute a major and systemic failure to establish a general system of protection as required by Article 5 of the Birds Directive.”

The Commission sent two letters of formal notice to Malta. Malta now has two months to remedy the situation, otherwise the Commission may decide to issue a reasoned opinion.

The Maltese government said it will replying to the letters of formal notice but insisted it would remain “committed to defend the interests and protect the rights of Maltese and Gozitan hunters and trappers, as these rights are protected in various other European member states.”

Malta claims its derogations are in conformity with the Birds Directive and that it even has a higher system of enforcement beyond that demanded by the European Commission itself.

Malta insists that the EC itself requested amendments to the laws for Malta to confirm with the ECJ decision on trapping of Golden Plover and Song Thrush; and that the 2009 Court of Justice decision has declared that “there is no other solution to the hunting of pigeons [turtle dove] and quail in Malta.”

Birdlife reacts: Brussels seeing through Malta's absurdities

Birdlife Malta CEO Mark Sultana said the infringement proceedings delivered a clear message that the European Commission will not allow the illegalities to continue.

“As quoted in the report, the high numbers show systemic failure,” he said.

When questioned on whether the European Commission’s swiftness to act on the finch trapping derogation came as a surprise, Sultana said the absurdness of local regulation was clear to everyone.

“It is absurd to think that more than 3,000 trappers will be carrying out scientific studies, when they have spent so many years breaking the law and catching illegal species,” he said.

On whether the infringement procedure over spring hunting failures could lead to the permanent closure of the spring hunting season, Sultana said the country was getting close to that situation.

"The false justifications raised by the country over the years will surface one day or another. The government is trying to trick the European Union. The EU now has had enough and is acting," he said.

Sultana was not impressed with government's statement that enforcement was over and above EU requirements. "There is inconsistency between what is written on paper and what is practiced in reality. You can write a lot of things but what is happening is very different. Government has no idea on what is going on and the lack of enforcement on the ground," he said.

Birdlife Secretary General Saviour Balzan said the country must catch up with its European neighbours on the issue. "Times have changed, we must speak out," he said.

Balzan added the majority of people want an end to spring hunting and demand seriousness from the government and not continuous appeasement towards the hunting lobby.