Fighting fear with facts | Mark Sultana

SHout campaigner Mark Sultana outlines the main arguments in favour of a ‘No’ vote in the forthcoming spring hunting referendum on April 11

SHout campaigner Mark Sultana
SHout campaigner Mark Sultana

In six weeks’ time, the Maltese electorate will be called upon to take a final decision on an issue that has proven singularly contentious in recent years: whether or not to legally permit the hunting of birds (specifically, turtle dove and quail) in spring. 

On the face of it, hunting in spring is banned across the EU for conservation reasons. Yet the Maltese government – echoing arguments made by the local hunting community – has consistently argued that Malta can legally avail of the derogation mechanism, provided in all European Directives, to exempt itself from this rule. Arguments range from the insufficient quantity of migratory birds in autumn, to a portrayal of spring hunting as a ‘tradition’ that should be preserved. The hunters’ association further argues that such derogations are commonplace in Europe… so why the fuss when Malta does the same as so many other countries?

It seems a reasonable question to put to a spokesman for a campaign seeking to abolish spring hunting... and Mark Sultana, an environmentalist and active SHout campaigner, is perhaps ideally positioned to answer it.

So do the hunters have a point that Malta’s derogation is actually quite acceptable by European standards? Is it true that many other EU countries do the same?

Sultana begins by outlining what a derogation actually is. “The reality is that, yes, every country can apply for a derogation. But there are reasons why a country would derogate from the Birds Directive. In most cases, it would be to control pests – mainly because of damage to crops – or for reasons of safety and security. For example: in each and every airport in Europe – and there are hundreds, if not thousands – they have to control a number of birds that might pose a hazard to planes or passengers. You need a derogation for that. So when the hunters claim that there are so many derogations in Europe, I would tend to agree… but they have nothing to do with Malta’s case. Malta is the only country that applies a derogation to permit hunting of turtle dove and quail for the enjoyment of 10,000 people.” 

Meanwhile, this is not exactly the first time all these arguments have been heard. They all cropped up in the case against Malta in the European Court of Justice... which ruled against past spring derogations, but seemed to leave the door ajar for future applications. That, at any rate, is how the hunters (and recent governments) have interpreted the ruling…

“My interpretation – which is based on actually reading the judgment – is that Malta was found guilty of illegally derogating from the birds directive prior to 2008. There are no ifs and buts about it: it’s clear, it’s written in all languages, and anyone can refer to it. The only part where the ECJ said that Malta could apply for a derogation… in my humble opinion, it was an extra sentence that was never needed. No one needs the ECJ to say ‘you can apply for a derogation’. You cannot even use that as an argument to justify an application: if the government were to say ‘we are applying because the ECJ told us we can’, the Commission would say: ‘go back to the drawing board and come back with solid arguments’…”

To be fair, however, it wasn’t the only argument. Malta also claimed – and the court apparently agreed – that autumn migration figures for turtle dove and quail do not represent a ‘satisfactory solution’ to spring…

Sultana however argues that the court’s interpretation was based on figures that were suspect. 

“We contend that the figures presented to the ECJ were not related to the birds that migrate over Malta, but were worldwide statistics. Secondly, they were also relying on the numbers of birds declared by the hunters themselves in autumn. So in those two areas – especially the latter one – unfortunately no one can blame me for being a bit sceptical about the figures presented to the ECJ…”

Even if we accept those figures, he goes on, they do not add up to a justification for hunting birds in spring. “The fact that we see fewer birds in autumn only means that these particular species need protection. It’s a known thing. Any scientist in Europe will tell you that hunting in spring is a fallacy against conservation. So even the hunters’ own argument that there are too few birds in autumn, is an even bigger reason why we should take care of them when they pass over in spring...”

Sultana however questions whether governments, when interpreting the ruling, are even interested by the real issues at stake.

“My biggest fear is that when these decisions are taken, they are based on the need of the human being, and not on the actual need of nature itself. The long-term damage we are causing – even to the detriment of those who enjoy hunting – is unsustainable…”

The environment, he adds, was never on the top of the agenda of any government in the past. “And when you think about it, this is the reason why people now have to go to a referendum. Because things have changed in this country: people have realised, and have raised awareness of how important it is to take care of our ecology, of the natural environment. In the last 10 years, people have started going out to the countryside far more often than before. People understand much more about bird migration than previously. And this has prompted people to say: ‘it is time to change this, to put nature on the agenda.’ That is why this vote will protect birds, will give us nature back, will give the countryside back to the people… but it will also send a message saying ‘We Maltese appreciate, as all Europeans and most of the world do, the importance of our ecology.”

There is, of course, the danger that the referendum would send out the clean opposite message in the case of a Yes victory…

He nods. “There is a big, big risk that, if the Yes vote wins… well, this is not just about 22 days of hunting in spring. It’s about much more. It’s a holistic message that the Maltese people do not care about the natural environment. Which would be a pity…”

Let’s talk a little bit about the core issue at stake. To some people, the entire argument may seem a little overblown. If you shoot a bird in autumn or spring… you’re still shooting a bird, at the end of the day. So why is Malta’s spring hunting season so contentious, anyway?

Sultana counters that there is no comparison between the impact of autumn and spring hunting.

“In spring, the birds that migrate over Malta will be the fittest. The ones that were selected by nature, through migration – as the specimens fittest to breed. If two turtle doves manage to breed in Europe, they will have four young… if not eight, with a double brood. A quail would have 13. In reality, however, many of these birds will be on their first migration. And they won’t survive it… because of human interference, including hunting; but it is also because there is a huge desert they have to cross; there might not be enough food for all of them when they reach their destination in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, etc. When they fly back they have to go through all that ordeal again… until they come to this island called Malta. They rest here for a day or two and then continue flying up to Europe to breed. But we have people who opt to kill them for enjoyment. It’s not sustainable. That bird they kill would have given us another four, eight or 13 young ones. That is why this is a matter of conservation…

Yet hunters also argue that Malta is not a main migratory route, and that the numbers shot here have a negligible effect on European populations. How accurate is that assessment?

“I would answer that this is about a principle of conservation. If there was a guarantee that those birds would not have bred in Europe, I would have no problem. But they do breed in Europe. So much so, that there is even a possibility they might breed in Malta. Turtle doves breed in North Africa, and all over the Mediterranean except Malta…” 

Ironically, he adds, the hunters’ own statistics also belie their other claim that spring is a more abundant season than autumn for turtle dove.

“In autumn 2013, the hunters declared they killed 8,000 turtle doves; in spring 2014, they declared 4,000. So they are either under-declaring in spring… or else, the perception that in autumn we don’t get as many turtle doves is false. And this is something the hunters brought on themselves: there are even declarations by the FKNK warning hunters to be ‘careful’ when they come to declare their catch. It’s something we try to highlight to the enforcement authorities of this country….”

Speaking of enforcement, another argument is that it is only a small minority of hunters who actually break the law… and that law-abiding hunters are being unfairly tarred with the same brush. Do the hunters have a point when they argue (as they did when the autumn season was abruptly closed last year) that they are being collectively punished for the actions of a few?

“It would be unfair to tar all hunters with the same brush, but it would also be unfair not to give the whole picture. The whole picture is that you have hunters who are law-abiding, yes; but I would say, very bluntly – because I roam the countryside every second that I can – that today, the majority of hunters would not think twice before shooting a protected bird. I say this hand on heart. If it were only a small minority, then it should be easy for the hunting associations to control.

“We need to also put this into a context whereby a law-abiding hunter has an obligation to report any illegalities he witnesses. But it doesn’t happen. So without trying to put everyone into one basket, one cannot deny that in our country, you have a situation where 10,000 hunters are out with loaded shotguns in the countryside in spring… shooting birds which are either on their way to breed in Europe, or trying to breed in Malta, but not being given the opportunity to do so. Moreover, the illegalities that happen during open season increase. So it is the hunting season in itself that acts as a smokescreen to allow these illegalities to take place…”

At the same time, ‘minority rights’ have been very much at the forefront of the Yes campaign. Already there are indications that there may be more to this referendum, in the minds of voters, than the sum total of the issue at hand. Is the No campaign concerned that people may vote on the basis of issues unrelated to hunting… that the FKNK’s warning of ‘you could be next’ may have resonated with a segment of the electorate?

“Let’s look at it another way. That the 10,000 hunters are a minority is a fact. But one can also argue that it is a minority of people who can actually go out into the countryside when the hunters are out. In reality, if you go to the Mellieha local council to get a permit to camp in L-Ahrax, they will tell you: ‘not during the spring hunting season.’ If you try to organise an educational programme in places like Majjistral, they will tell you: ‘we’re not doing educational programmes, because for the last two years we had to stop them because there were hunters too close to the children’. So the minority argument, for me, does not really count in itself.”

What about the argument that other minorities may be affected by the outcome of this referendum?

“First and foremost, we are only using the referendum as a tool. We did not create the referendum process. It was already there. So the outcome of the referendum doesn’t make any difference to any future referenda. Whether the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ wins, no one can guarantee that there will not be another referendum on another issue in future. Furthermore, we need to understand the legal effects of a referendum. Personally, with all due respect to the Yes movement… I tend to believe Judge Giovanni Bonello’s declaration about abrogative referenda. In fact, even the FKNK’s legal representatives have not come out and said that Judge Bonello was wrong…”

Bonello argued that an abrogative referendum can only remove a law, and that there are no specific laws which can abolish a pastime if removed. Still, few can deny that the hunters are tapping into a psychological phenomenon that may prove effective. Even if the core argument has been shattered, there may still be a negative backlash against the No campaign on the ground that it represents an attitude that seeks to limit the enjoyment of others. Is Sultana worried that this may affect the outcome?

“Yes, I am concerned. It concerns the whole SHout campaign. The only thing that gives us hope is that the people of Malta tend to value arguments these days, and we intend to put forward our arguments in this campaign. I would like to give the people who may be feeling this emotional response you mention some pointers to think about. The real reason hunters want to keep hunting in spring is because they want to have the enjoyment of killing birds. Now most people would object to that; so how would I defend that position? I would try and turn it into a national issue. I would call it a ‘tradition’. I would say, ‘you’ll be next’… but this is the approach you would normally use in a situation where you don’t have solid arguments. The fear factor. And yes, fear is one of the biggest emotional factors that can sway votes…” 

How does the No campaign plan to counter fear? With facts, Sultana replies.

“What we’re trying to tell people is: get your facts straight. Any special interest group, any association practising a pastime, will have a legal advisor. Meet them. When my child is sick, I go to a doctor; I don’t go to Joe Perici Calascione. When I need legal advice, I go to a lawyer. Giovanni Bonello has already spoken; but maybe some people might think he made a mistake. I doubt that myself; but go to your legal advisor, and ask: ‘which laws, if removed, would affect our pastime?’ Because the chances are, if laws are removed, their pastime might even grow. It might not be limited any longer... because laws usually set limits on practices. In fact, an abrogative referendum cannot even be used to ban autumn hunting. It can be used, perhaps, to remove an aspect of hunting regulations, such as the afternoon curfew. But not to ban hunting altogether…”

Sultana is nonetheless confident that, in this argument, the truth will prevail.

“My appeal to the public is: I understand the fear… but why would someone try to frighten you, unless what they are saying is not true? So find the truth; then ask yourself, but why would this lobby try to put fear in me, when there is no reason to be afraid? The reason is: because your vote would continue to give them the enjoyment of killing birds.”