Updated | Commission to take Malta to EU court over refusal to end bird trapping

Controversial 2014 decision by Labour government to reopen trapping season closed back in 2009, will be dealt with by European Court of Justice

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for the environment, had already warned earlier this year that unless Malta bans trapping, it would have to face the EU's Court of Justice
Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for the environment, had already warned earlier this year that unless Malta bans trapping, it would have to face the EU's Court of Justice

The European Commission is referring Malta to the European Court of Justice over its refusal to stop bird trapping, a practice that the Labour government reintroduced after it was phased out and banned in 2009.

This is the second time Malta is taken to the EU Court for flouting environmental laws: the first time was over its insistence on opening the spring hunting season.

A source privy to Malta’s relations on hunting and trapping with the European Commission said that it was expected that the government ignore the warning from Brussels to end the trapping season, earlier this year.

“Malta contested the Commission’s analysis,” the source said, referring to the reasoned opinion sent by the Commission back in May 2015.

Since Malta has not committed to end trapping, it will have to answer to the Commission inside the EU’s Court of Justice.

Malta was first informed that its trapping season, which allows the trapping of seven species of wild finches, was breaching EU rules in October 2014, in a letter of formal notice.

Trapping of finches is prohibited by the EU although member states may derogate from the ban is no other satisfactory solution, and if the derogation is used “judiciously, with small numbers and strict supervision”.

MaltaToday’s source said the Commission was “unconvinced” that these conditions were met.

Malta was allowed a transitional arrangement in the Accession Treaty to phase out finch trapping, taking into account the time required to establish a captive breeding programme. The transitional arrangement expired in 2008, and after that trapping was banned.

But Labour’s re-election campaign targeted hunters’ votes, and although Joseph Muscat made no electoral pledge to reopen bird trapping, the reintroduction of trapping as a sop to the hunting lobby opened up an old environmental wound.

The reopening of the trapping season allowed the capture of seven wild songbirds which migrate over Malta in the autumn. The species are the linnet, the greenfinch, the chaffinch, the serin, the goldfinch, the hawfinch and the siskin.

During the 2002 negotiations with the EU, the Nationalist administration presented the EC with the precise total number of trappers who had a licence – but that year, most trappers did not have a licence and no title over land, prompting a scramble to have thousands of trappers regularised.

The new trapping licences in 2014 should have been reserved to those who had been in possession of a trapping licence in 2004. But this does not appear to have been the case this time round and new trappers were allowed to register.

In June 2015, European Commissioner for the environment Karmenu Vella had warned that “Malta will be taken to court if it doesn’t close the trapping season.”
The EU’s Birds Directive bans activities that directly threaten birds, such as deliberate killing or capture, destruction of nests and removal of eggs, and associated activities such as trading in live or dead birds, with a few exceptions.

Article 9 of the directive allows member states to derogate from the ban where there is no other satisfactory solution, for instance in the interests of public health and safety or air safety, to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water, and for the protection of flora and fauna.

Maltese trappers trap finches by using clap nets and live decoy birds. The age-old tradition is practised by over 4,000 individuals. Most of the clap traps are in fact located on public land.

BirdLife welcomes decision

In a statement issued later today, BirdLife Malta welcomed the European Commission’s decision to refer Malta to the European Court of Justice over its finch trapping derogation.

Conservation Manager Nicholas Barbara said “BirdLife Malta applauds the Commission for not hesitating to intervene in the breach of EU laws to stop the suffering and pointless trapping of wild protected birds that the Maltese government has permitted, ignoring several warnings from the EC.”

He added that BirdLife Malta is calling on the European Commission to apply an ‘interim measure’ to prevent finch trapping from taking place while a hearing at the ECJ is pending. 

Barbara added that an interim measure would mean the government would be forced to suspend finch trapping until the case is heard, preventing the opening of the finch trapping season due to start on 20 October.

BirdLife also pointed out that government continues to allow trapping of Golden Plover and Song Thrush with a separate derogation on which it has received two official warnings so far, meaning a third warning would bring Malta to the ECJ as well.

“If a trapping season is to be opened this autumn for Golden Plover and Song Thrush, it is likely to be used as a cover for finch trapping. Our data from field surveillance in the 2012 and 2013 trapping seasons, show that 70% of sites were actually used to trap finches,” Barbara said.