A derogation too far? | Lucas Micallef

So far, Malta’s hunting community has successfully resisted most attempts – at local, and European level – to curb its excesses. But now, even FKNK’s new president LUCAS MICALLEF concedes that the net may finally be closing in, on at least one controversial practice: the trapping of wild song-birds

Lucas Micallef
Lucas Micallef

In your Facebook video-message, you talked about ‘continuity’ from your predecessors – some of whom were very combative – and also promised that ‘the war will continue’. What does this tell us about the direction you actually intend to take the FKNK in, as its new President?   

First of all, thanks for watching the video. But when I mentioned ‘continuity’: bear in mind that the FKNK, as an organisation, has a 45-year history. Throughout that time, it has always been the voice of Malta’s hunters and trappers. So all I meant was that the FKNK will simply continue in that role.

As for the word ‘war’: obviously, I didn’t mean it in the sense many people might think. It’s more a reference to all the difficulties and challenges that the Maltese hunting enthusiast finds himself facing every day. And there have been ‘challenges’ that, unfortunately, we lost in the past: among others, when Malta joined the European Union as a full member.

We knew we would be negatively affected: even because other member-organisations of FACE [Europe’s hunting federation] had warned us that a lot of things were going to change. And it was true: a lot of things did change. The seasons were shortened; the list of [huntable] species became smaller; a lot of restrictions were introduced… including quotas: which, let’s face it, we barely even knew what the word even meant, at the time…

In fact, you also mentioned that ‘some battles might be lost’. Was this a reference to the European Commission’s case against Malta over finch-trapping?

It is one of the things I had in mind, yes…

So you’re expecting to lose the case?

[Shrugs] When you see how the European Commission is approaching this issue – not just with Malta; it is also applying pressure to countries like Spain and France –  you realise that this institution clearly does not want to engage in dialogue. It only wants to ‘destroy’ [teqred]. And I see that as a big problem, myself.

What makes the European Union a beautiful thing, if you ask me, is that it is based on ‘unity’. But ‘unity’ doesn’t mean ‘conformity in everything’. I have hunted in a lot of European countries; and I have seen with my own eyes how the culture, the practices, the way things are done… it’s always going to be different, from one country to another.

So you can’t realistically expect all countries to conform to the exact same regulations: which might be good for some, but not for all…

But the point of this ECJ case is that Malta seems to be (once again) trying to circumvent a Europe-wide ban on trapping… this time, by applying a derogation ‘for research purposes’. Is that really the case, though? Or is it just an excuse to allow Maltese trappers to continue their hobby, under a different guise?

Well, if you’re going to approach it from that angle… I honestly don’t think we’ll ever get anywhere. But no, it’s not ‘just an excuse’. Let me put it this way: it was the European Commission itself – when it first took us to the ECJ over the issue of trapping, in 2018 – which declared that the Maltese government could not apply a derogation for finch-trapping… when there was no scientific data to base that decision upon.

So the Maltese government decided to act on that statement, by applying a derogation for trapping for research purposes. We are collecting the necessary scientific data – which, after all, the European Commission demanded itself…

Scientific data about what, though?

For instance, about a particular species ‘reference populations’… to find out, among other things, where the seven species of finch actually breed.   

Now: admittedly, the methodology has so far been limited only to ‘ring recapture’… and we haven’t had many successful recaptures, in the past year. But even from the few ringed specimens we have recovered… we found out, for example, that at least one of the species also nests in Russia.

That’s a whole new reference point, for Maltese ornithology: it is something we simply didn’t know before. So what I don’t understand is: instead of just dismissing this derogation as ‘an excuse’… why don’t ornithologists participate in this research project themselves? If they’re really interested in the preservation of birdlife, they should also be interested in the research.   

And besides: there’s no actual ‘taking of birds’ involved here. All we do is trap the birds, ring them, and release them back in the wild…

That, however, assumes that the idea behind the project is indeed ‘scientific’. And it applies to other regulations involving hunting, too: like the quotas you mentioned earlier. Statistics suggest that, in practice, only 2.7% of hunters actually reported their catch this year. Doesn’t this undermine the whole point in having a quota system to begin with?

If we’re going to talk about that 2.7% figure… let’s also look at where it came from. In Malta, hunters have a legal obligation to report what they take. During the derogation [for spring hunting], it has to happen there and then: the moment you shoot the bird, you have to report it immediately by SMS. In Autumn, on the other hand, you have to report your total catch – number, and species – only by the end of each session.

What this also means, however, is that Malta is the only country in Europe that has a system of live-reporting; and one of the very few that has a legal obligation to report one’s catch...

The issue, however, is not whether the obligation exists; but whether it is properly enforced…

I was coming to that. The 2.7% figure was for quail, during the spring season. Now: to hunt in spring, you need to apply for a special licence. As happens every year, the Wild Birds Regulation Unit issued a public call for applications before the season opened. At the time, however, it had not yet been established, by the Ornis Committee, whether this year’s spring season would be for quail, for turtle-dove… or for both. That decision was taken only after the licenses were applied for.   

What this means, in practice, is that many licensed hunters – despite having paid their registration fees, etc. – simply did not go out to hunt last season at all. I know many hunters personally, who had only applied for the licence in the hope that it would be a turtle-dove season. When they realised that the season would be for quail instead… they just stayed at home.

So you can’t say that, if there were 8K licensed hunters this year… all 8K of them actually went out hunting.

Apart from that: this year, we also saw how – unfortunately – the effect of climate change is also altering the patterns of migration. Where we usually associate spring with a flourishing of nature… this year, it was almost like summer. And the quail migration was particularly poor, during an already- limited season of only 10 days. Again, I know a lot of hunters who didn’t shoot a single quail, in the entire season. I myself only bagged one… right at the beginning of the season, as it happens…

But if you yourself are conceding that climate change is already impacting bird migration… how ‘sustainable’ is it, to shoot the few remaining birds that do still migrate over Malta?

I would approach the same issue slightly different. Yes, the challenges are there… and climate change is definitely one of them. But why don’t we work together, collectively, to try and address the real problems? For example, [the EU’s] Common Agricultural Policy. From the 1970s to today, over 80% of birds that breed on agricultural land have been wiped out. Why don’t we ever talk about that? […]

But ultimately: the reason we hunt, is to conserve. If a hunter doesn’t conserve… he can’t hunt. To give an example: if you’re going to target a particular species of bird… you also have to preserve that bird’s natural habitat.

So we can’t keep looking at hunting only from the perspective that it ‘takes’ from the environment, without ever giving anything back. We have to also consider the hundreds of hours, invested by enthusiasts – not just in Malta; but all over Europe – to conserve the natural habitat of the birds themselves. And not just the birds: the conservation work we do, is also of enormous benefit to all the rest of the flora and fauna…

Fair enough: but what about the impact on the populations of those birds? As you yourself said, many hunters were expecting a turtle-dove season this year: but the turtle-dove is now an endangered species…

It’s not ‘endangered’. Its official status is ‘in decline’…

All the same: what’s the point of ‘conserving the turtle-dove’s natural habitat’, when you are also adding even more pressure, on a species that is already under threat?

I’ve already mentioned one of the factors contributing to the turtle-dove’s decline. Even according to the European Commission itself, intensive agriculture in Europe has wiped out a lot of its natural habitat.

But to answer your question about whether hunting, in itself, is also a factor: just look at the two European countries which registered the greatest decline in breeding turtle-dove populations, over the years: Germany, and the UK.

Both those countries actually banned turtle-dove shooting, all the way back in the late 1970s/early 1980s. And yet, the resident breeding populations [of turtle-dove] keep declining, year after year…

This fact, alone, proves that hunting is not a factor in the species’ decline…

But hunting certainly was a major factor in the eradication of numerous other former Maltese breeding birds… the Kestrel, the Jackdaw, the Barn Owl…

What a coincidence: it was just today that we released the first of our captive-bred Barn Owls [as part of a project supported by the Conservation of Wild Birds Fund for Voluntary Organisations].

And yet, it was hunters who originally drove the Barn Owl to extinction. So even this project you just mentioned… isn’t it all just part of a ‘greenwashing’ exercise: i.e., making token ‘conservationist’ gestures, in order to cover up for the much greater damage that is being done?

First of all, you can’t really say it was ‘because of hunters’. The Barn Owl – like all birds of prey – was always a protected species in Malta: even at a time [before the 1980s] when most other species weren’t. So it wasn’t really ‘hunting’ that exterminated that species in Malta… it was the illegal taking of birds. Unfortunately, however, there is a tendency here to always use the word ‘hunting’ to also mean ‘illegal hunting’… when in actual fact, it is the opposite.

Even so, however: with this project, the FKNK is at least acknowledging the errors of the past, and shouldering its responsibilities by trying to re-introduce this species back into the wild. What’s so wrong with that?

In itself, nothing. But there could be a reason why so many people associate the word ‘hunting’ with ‘illegality’. This year BirdLife Malta registered 58 protected species shot, in just 10 days. Don’t you think that there is simply too much illegality – and too little enforcement – in Maltese hunting today?

What I can tell you is that, when such cases are reported, we always publicly condemn them. Always. And we never have any problem doing it.

But I’m the type who sees the glass as being ‘half-full’, not ‘half-empty’. I’m not saying that there aren’t problems; but you also have to acknowledge how much has really changed – not just in terms of hunting regulations, but also the culture of hunting itself – in the past 15 years… from the time when, yes: perhaps we did need to introduce a little discipline.

But today… when we talk about ‘illegal hunting’, we are really talking about just a few isolated cases. It is the exception, not the rule. As for ‘enforcement’: there is infinitely more today, than there ever was before…

Are you sure about that? Last I looked, the ALE still had only around 28 members, to patrol the entire countryside….

If you look at how many inspections are being carried out, however, you will find they have increased substantially. But by enforcement, I also meant to the issue of self-regulation.

Today’s hunters are far more self-regulating than they used to be. There is a lot more awareness, even about hunting regulations: in this sense and the FKNK worked very hard to educate the local hunting community. But yes, it may also be because of the efforts of other NGOs.

But the fact remains that Maltese hunters, today, are much more conscious of their responsibilities towards the environment. There has been a major improvement, especially in the last 15 years; and I think it’s only fair to acknowledge this.

Even CABS, for instance, recently issued a statement acknowledging that the situation has improved. Unfortunately, however, a certain other NGO – which always endorses all CABS’ other statements – chose not to endorse this particular one, for some reason…