Last chance to stand up to bullies | Steve Micklewright

With the European Commission washing its hands of the spring hunting issue and local political parties held hostage to hunters, Birdlife director Steve Micklewright argues that it it now falls to the ordinary voter to make his voice heard

'Sometimes all it takes is for people to look closely at themselves and realise that things they had accepted in the past were not, in fact, acceptable'
'Sometimes all it takes is for people to look closely at themselves and realise that things they had accepted in the past were not, in fact, acceptable'

These are exciting times to be an activist concerned with illegal hunting. Possibly dangerous times, too. As the Coalition to Abolish Spring Hunting (ironically abbreviated to 'CASH', which is also a resource in very short supply) steps up its campaign for a referendum to end spring hunting once and for all, there are signs that the hunting community may not take the affront lying down.

David Camilleri, an AD/Green Party activist from Gozo, was last week harassed in the Gozo ferry queue as he was collecting signatures for the anti-spring hunting petition. The petition itself was snatched out of his hands and torn.

Birdlife Malta and AD are partners in this coalition, alongside other NGOs including the Ramblers' Association, the Coalition for Animal Rights, Din l-Art Helwa, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Friends of the Earth Malta, Gaia Foundation, Greenhouse Malta, International Animal Rescue Malta, Moviment Graffitti and Nature Trust. MaltaToday as a media organisation is also supporting the campaign to abolish spring hunting.

When I meet Steve Micklewright, Birdlife's CEO, to discuss the situation, he takes pains to point out that he can only speak on behalf of his own NGO, and not of the coalition as a whole.

Even so, he can easily confirm the bullying tactics used by hunters - not just random individuals acting off their own bat, but occasionally from hunting organisations also - when it comes to ensuring they keep getting their way.

"To give you an example: when the Ramblers' Association announced they were joining the coalition, the hunters' federation issued a memo to its members telling them to ban ramblers from their property," Steve tells me at the BLM office in Ta' Xbiex. "This is typical of the tactics they use, and it is exactly the sort of behaviour one associates with a schoolyard bully. And this is another reason why the referendum to stop spring hunting is so important: it represents a last chance for the ordinary man in the street to stand up to bullies."

Given that people actually collecting signatures have already been intimidated... how is the petition faring? What sort of response has the coalition got so far?

"I can't give you up-to-date figures right now, because we are still in the process of collecting. We intend to update the count in the coming weeks. But as of last week, we received over 15,000 signatures. And we've only been collecting since August..."

Micklewright adds that public interest has grown considerably since then: especially this week, following the circulation of the petition in this newspaper, and coverage elsewhere.

"Interest is definitely growing. The significance of this cannot be understated. Bear in mind that the total number of registered hunters is around 10,000. We've already got the support of more people than the total number of registered hunters."

This, he hints, should alter popular perceptions (especially among politicians) of the hunting lobby's strength in numbers. "Hunters have been getting their way largely because politicians have to date always been afraid of losing their votes. They (hunters) have created a very clever fiction that their lobby can swing the outcome of an election. In a sense I can't even blame the politicians... it can't be easy to face the sort of pressure from that kind of lobby. But there is evidence that the hunters can't, in fact, influence election results. Hopefully this referndum should throw all that into sharp focus."

Micklewright argues that when politicians see that there are many, many more people birdlovers than hunters, their attitude towards the issue may change, and so may the legislation.

But let's take a step back and consider how we even got to this stage at all. Anyone familiar with the issue will know the background details: how a previous government had always (for aforementioned reasons) represented the hunters' demands in their negotiations with the EU before the 2003 referendum; how they claimed to have secured a derogation under Article 9 of the treaty; and how the Commission took Malta to court for opening the spring season every year between 2003 and 2008.

Looking back at the sequence of events, it doesn't seem to add up. All along the direction taken by the Commission seemed to point towards a phasing out of spring hunting - after all, it was the Commission that forced government to close the season abruptly in 2008. We also know the reasons: many of the conditions upholding the presumed 'derogation', including adequate enforcement, were not in place. So what has changed since then? Why has Europe lost interest in this issue, to the extent that the coalition now has to fight it alone?

"The European Commission is clearly trying to wash its hands of the issue," Mickelwright confims. "At least that was the impression we were given by Karl Falkenberg, director-general of the DG environment, when he was last in Malta. He was clearly saying to us that he was satisified with the framework legislation that permits hunting in spring..."

This, he adds, is a mystery unto itself: "We know what the framework legislation is like. It allows hunters to compile reports themselves, when they know full well that the conditions for spring hunting depend on the numbers they declare in autumn. They have an incentive to under-report..."

Nor is it just the hunters who have a vested interest in this matter. Politicians on both sides have tended to champion hunters, and both Nationalist and Labour governments have openly taken their side in the ongoing struggle concerning spring hunting. Part of the entire issue concerns the fact that the European Commission bases its decisions concerning whether or not to initiate infringement procedures on data supplied by the government, from information given to it exclusively by hunters: a biased source fed by another biased source.

This year BLM complained that data contained in the spring hunting report was not even made public (or at least, not until long after it was submitted to the commission); in previous years, the same NGO had poured scorn on the figures contained in the 2011 autumn report, arguing that if the hunters' claims are true "they must be very poor marksmen".

Birdlife Malta has never disguised its scepticism regarding hunters's own estimates of their bag-count. And this does not even take into the consideration the sheer preponderance of illegal hunting that often goes unreported - with regular massacres of protected species which seem to continue even after being condemned by the hunters' federation itself.

I put it to Micklewright that, from an outsider's perspective, it seems the battle has been lost so far - not only is the Commission accepting without question data which is automatically suspect, but following a European court ruling which seemed to permit spring hunting in principle; it seems to no longer care about the issue at all.

Micklewright however rejects the view that the European Court has somehow sanctioned spring hunting through its 2010 ruling. "What people seem to be overlooking is that the European Court found Malta guilty of illegally opening the spring hunting season in previous years. The fact that a judge also expressed an opinion in the ruling that spring hunting may be permissible in future is actually irrelevant..."

As an analogy he invites me to imagine the same thing happening in the case of a different crime. 

"Let's imagine I am found guilty of a criminal act. If the judge who convicts me also expresses his opinion that, under different circumstances, it might not be illegal... does that change the fact that I was convicted? Does it mean I can break the law again? I don't think so."

Besides, for all the reasons outlined above, the circumstances have not changed all that much since 2008 - certainly not in the most sensitive aspect of the framework legislation, which concerns law enforcement capability. Suddenly, the government's interpretation of the 2010 court ruling does start to look a little shaky.

Nonetheless, Mickelwright reveals that the Commission now expects Birdlife Malta to take the government to court, instead of doing so itself.

"This is what Falkenberg seemed to be suggesting when we pointed out a number of systemic failures in the hunting situation. He told us we should initiate legal action ourselves. But it's a Catch-22 situation," he adds. "We neither have the resources nor the knowledge to present the case in court. It is the Commission that receives the reports, and is privy to the data you would need to open a case."

So if the Commission doesn't act, no one else can... and if no else acts, the Commission won't? Yes, I think Joseph Heller would admire the paradox...

Micklewright is nonetheless confident that concerted pressure will eventually make a difference. "Bear in mind that Malta's hunting situation is not just a Maltese problem. Nor is it just a European problem, as some of the brids that get shot here breed in Africa. It's a global problem, and there is pressure also from other conservation groups in Europe and elsewhere."

Another reason for his optimism is that, for all its flaws, the recently introduced revisions to the hunting framework legislation included some unexpected, positive developments.

"I was particularly struck by the regulation that, in order to apply for a licence, you have to be a member of a relevant organsiation which is enrolled with the Voluntary Organisations Council, and has a membership of at least 2,000."

Initially the figure was 3,000 members, but this was downwardly revised. Either way, there are at most two - probably only one, the FKNK - hunting organistations that can meet those criteria.

"In the past the FKNK used to argue that each time they try to discipline their members, the members would simply up and leave, and register with another organisation. Well, they can't use that excuse any more. To be a registered hunter you now have to enrol with FKNK. Now is the time for FKNK to deal effectively with its renegade members."

To be fair it must be pointed out that the FKNK occasionally does take action against its unruly members: a hunter convicted of shooting protected short-toed eagles last week received a lifetime ban - which, according to the new rules, also means he can never legally hunt again. But few can deny that the massacre of eagles - and other birds, in the past - went on even after this happened.

Meanwhile the collection of signatures goes on, too. I ask Steve Micklewright if there is any truth to rumours that the coalition intends to hold the referendum to coincide with next year's European election: in which case, the deadline to reach the 35,000 target would be imminent.

"It was never an official plan. Naturally it would make more sense that way - people will be voting anyway, so it should be easier to get the vote out. It would be less expensive for government, too. But while it is preferable it is not an actual target, no."

Micklewright admits the deadline is also a factor - the coalition would have to more than double its current tally in just a few weeks. But while this may be unrealistic in the short term, the long term prosepcts are decidedly healthy.

I ask Micklewright if he thinks that previous investment by Birdlife in education (the NGO has run individual school programmes in the past, and opens its bird sanctuaries to visits by schoolchildren, etc) may have been instrumental in changing public perceptions.

"I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but perceptions are definitely changing. I would expect that there are other reasons for this, though. Surveys conducted on the issue of spring hunting have shown that younger people are likelier to oppose spring hunting; but the same surveys also register opposition in all categories and across all age groups. I think that, for whatever reason, people are becoming more aware: not just about bidlife or conservation issues, but also of their own rights as individuals. This issue is not just about birds. It is also about basic rights, such as the right to enjoy the countryside, to be close to nature, and so on. In the past, people from urban areas may not have visited the countryside very frequently; they might not have been aware of what was going on. Now that is changing. The same people may still not visit the countryside often, but they are now more concerned about the situation than ever before."

This development cannot be put down to any single educational campaign.

"If you ask me, it goes deeper than education. Sometimes all it takes is for people to look closely at themselves and realise that things they had accepted in the past were not, in fact, acceptable. The realised that rights - the rights of birds, but also their own rights - were being taken away by a minority that always uses disproprtionate power to get its way. This referendum will give them the chance to make a stand against this injustice."

Anyone wishing to add his signature to call for a referendum should email to: [email protected]