Keeping all options open | Mark Sultana

Following last year’s referendum defeat, the Campaign to Abolish Spring Hunting seems to have reached a dead end. But BirdLife Malta chief executive Mark Sultana argues that the case against spring hunting is very far from closed

Mark Sultana (Photo: Ray Attard)
Mark Sultana (Photo: Ray Attard)

There is an old saying – too well-known to bother repeating in full – that starts: “if at first you don’t succeed…”

Certainly the campaign to abolish spring hunting did not succeed last year… So will the organisers stick to the time-honoured script, and “try, try, try again?”

On the steps of Castille some two weeks ago, BirldLife president Daryll Grima suggested they might. At a glance, however, the prospects do not look rosy for success a second time round. 

Last year’s referendum result seemed to cement the perception that – for all the noise made by vocal environmentalists – their actual concerns are not widely shared among the electorate. Many now view the matter as having been ‘settled’ democratically… and thus placed out of reach. And with all the political controversy unfolding in the background, it also feels as though the critical momentum has been lost.

Is it such a good idea to ‘try again’ in that kind of scenario? Mark Sultana, BLM chief executive, seems to think so.

“Yours are valid comments; but to be clear, the referendum was to decide whether Malta should retain the option to derogate from the Birds Directive. The responsibility of whether to actually derogate or not still remains in the hands of the government. With the referendum, the people gave the government the opportunity to decide: but it didn’t tell the government to open the spring hunting season each year. It just didn’t remove the derogation…”

All the same, the government is within its rights to interpret the result as a go-ahead for this year’s season…

“I don’t think that’s the only interpretation. I still think the referendum sent a bit of a message to the government. In fact when Joseph Muscat spoke after the result, he described it as a ‘close shave’. So he got the message.  The message was that we Maltese do care when it comes to the environment. So please take note...” 

During the campaign, much emphasis was placed on the conservation status of the two species concerned: in particular turtle dove… which has since been reclassified as endangered by the United Nations’ conservation agency.

“It was very obvious back then, to people who have been studying the situation for years, that the turtle dove was in decline. Since then, this knowledge has been stamped and certified by what is known as the IUCN. So what we are saying now is that, with this certification proving that the turtle dove is an endangered species, how can the government still feel comfortable opening a spring hunting season this year, especially for turtle dove?”

But isn’t that why the quotas for turtle dove have been reduced to 5,000?

“Yes, for sure. Whether it will have an impact or not is another question. I beg to think differently, because we have our reservations on whether the hunters’ declarations are correct. In fact, if you look at the figures for the last five years, hunters have never caught more than 5,000. My guess is that the government looked at what was declared in those years, and concluded that by setting the quota at 5,000, it would not rock the boat, because the situation would remain exactly the same…”

Even taking the hunters’ own (dubious) estimates on board, the figures do not add up.

“From a conservation point view, if we take the hunters’ figures as correct, I would say that this season will impact the turtle dove the same way it impacted it in the past. It’s not really reducing the number of birds killed. The reality, however, is that Malta’s system of recording hunters’ catches – whereby hunters report by SMS each bird taken – is a fallacy. The moment the season is open, there is no one who can put hand on heart and tell us exactly how many birds have been shot. It is pretty much impossible to do. So as far as I am concerned, the quota reduction is a fallacy, too.”

If the hunters’ declarations are untrustworthy, there are always the estimates of conservation groups such as CABS and BirdLife itself. How many birds does BLM estimate to be killed each year in spring?

“Let’s make a distinction between illegalities, and the hunting of turtles dove: which, in the eyes of Maltese law, is at the moment legal. Basically, from what we see in the countryside, there are a number of points to mention. One, it’s very difficult to calculate or estimate how many are killed. So you really do have to rely on the hunters… and I, for one, have my doubts. Two, we also realise how difficult it is to enforce the laws. Looking at it holistically: in Malta, all aspects of environmental law enforcement fall under MEPA… with the miraculous exception of birds. Birds fall under the Wild Birds Regulation Unit, which in turn falls under the parliamentary secretariat for animal welfare …”

The same secretariat was also famously instrumental in identifying a legal ‘loophole’ to also reopen trapping, after this had been duly phased out. Given that its remit is actually to protect animals, rather than facilitate their capture or destruction… doesn’t this give us an indication of how low animal welfare really is on the scale of government priorities?

Sultana breaks into a laugh. “Let me put it this way: the joke we have at the moment is that it’s like having Count Dracula in charge of the blood-bank. It defeats the whole purpose of having a directorate for animal rights. The idea itself is brilliant: to have a flagbearer of animal rights at Cabinet level. But there is also the responsibility to safeguard those rights. The secretariat might be doing a good job in other areas… but when it comes to wild birds, we are very, very far from adequate enforcement levels. If anything, it should be the Animal Welfare secretariat pushing the Police Commissioner to create a Wildlife Crimes Unit...” 

Enforcement shouldn’t be in the hands of the WBRU, he carries on, even to avoid conflicts of interest. “How can the same people who apply a derogation, also enforce it? It should fall to someone else to say whether that derogation is being applied correctly or not. And I won’t go into the issue of having hunters and trappers employed as enforcers. Of course, they have every right to be employed there. But during the hunting and trapping season… do they take days off to go and hunt or trap? Or do they take overtime to ensure that the laws are being properly enforced? Should I be asking these questions? Ideally, no, because there shouldn’t be any doubt. So why is the WBRU creating these doubts?”

This same confusion of roles seems to manifest itself in other areas, too. “Our disappointment is when you see an exhibition promoting taxidermy, organised by two people who were found guilty of taxidermy infringements, and the minister has no problem in standing there, shoulder to shoulder with them, and inaugurating the exhibition… in Buskett, a Natura 2000 site! Just to rub more salt into the wound. This is the situation we have at the moment. And when we criticise it, we are called ‘extremists’…”

Another issue concerns recent legislation which, on closer scrutiny, turns out to be unenforceable in practice.  “One very clear example is the law regulating taxidermy. On one hand we have a law making taxidermy legal for whoever registers; on the other hand, there is a limit of 30 birds… below which you don’t have to register. How on earth is anyone going to determine how many birds in a taxidermy collection were the work of one person in a year? If the police find 30 carcasses in a raid, the owner could say: ‘that’s all I shot this year, and that’s all I am going to use for taxidermy purposes.” If they find 45, he might say: ’15 are mine, 30 are for my son.’ The law has been left wide open…”

But surely if a raid yields a collection of more than 30 stuffed birds, the enforcers would be able to take action…?

“Not even, no. Because the law only regulates the process of taxidermy itself. It does not go into possession. BirdLife Malta will be taking a stance and trying to be more proactive, by drawing up a draft of how we believe the law should be worded. We don’t want to only criticise each change as it is made… even if there is much to criticise. The bottom line, to go back to the issue of enforcement, is… it’s very difficult. So hats off to the police, who do their best. The truth, however, is that ‘their best’ is not good enough…”

Some years back there was talk of the need to beef up the Administrative Law Enforcement department in proportion with the task of monitoring some 14,000 hunters and trappers all over the countryside. At the time, the number of licences issued was increasing, while the ALE remained static. Has any of that changed?

“Not really. The ratio of police to hunters is still the same. The difficulty is, we are not talking about traffic management here: where you know exactly where the roads are, how many cars pass, and can allocate police accordingly. We’re talking about the environment of Malta, where the landscape doesn’t help: there are slopes, walls, private property, and some areas are almost inaccessible. It’s also a migration season, so you can’t tell exactly when the birds are really going to pass over in large numbers, or from which direction, and in which areas. Then you have the laws the way they are, which are difficult to enforce anyway.”

Even if enforcement could be improved, it only deals with illegalities. The one issue that can’t be handled by officers in the field is whether the quotas are being respected. That has to wait till the end of the season, and relies on hunters’ declarations anyway. Sultana has made no secret of his scepticism. Why is he so convinced they are under-declaring?”

“When we are in the field, we do two types of count. We count how many shots we hear – which doesn’t mean a bird has been killed – we count how many birds we saw, and we plot a graph for the 21 days of the season. You see a correlation. When there are large numbers of birds, you hear many shots, and when there are few you hardly hear any. The correlation is clear…”

It becomes less clear, he adds, when you factor in the hunters’ declarations. “If you look at the official data submitted to the government, you will notice that their peaks do not usually coincide with the peak migrations we recorded. There will be some correlation, yes… but most of the season the kills will remain low, then suddenly spike in the last two days. It’s too conspicuous not to notice. Come on, let’s not pull anyone’s leg any longer. Let’s just admit that the system is failing…”

This, however, only takes us back full circle. We can all agree that the system is failing, but we are no nearer a solution for pointing it out. Where does all this leave the campaign for the abolition of spring hunting? Does Mark Sultana see scope for reviving the issue now?

“The reality is that spring hunting in Malta has an expiry date. It’s going to stop, one way or another. Whether because the birds themselves – mainly, the turtle dove – will no longer pass over Malta, or will have become extinct in Europe… that’s one possibility…”

But could it really come to that? Hunters argue that the numbers they shoot – even when not based on their own declarations – remain small by any international standard…

“The trends are there. IUCN does not put a species on the Red List for no reason. Of course, the impact does not only come from hunters… there are pesticides, loss of habitat due to development, and so on. I am the first to admit this. But hunting still has an effect, and if you weigh the pressures on birdlife, you will find that the pressures that come from hunting exist only for man’s enjoyment. You can question agricultural methods, certainly… but people no longer hunt to survive. There is no excuse to carry on hunting a vulnerable bird in spring, just for the enjoyment of a few.”

Sultana returns to the list of options. “There is also the possibility that the Commission will once again take Malta to the European Court. There is much more weight to this issue, now that the conservation status of turtle dove has been certified as endangered. The EU is certainly going to ask questions.  And let us not forget also that the European Court had based its ruling on the view that turtle dove was ‘of least concern’.  Now, its status has changed… and the government must be careful, because there is a difference between infringing a Directive – in which case, you’re given a slap on the wrist and told not to do it again – and breaking a ruling by the ECJ…” 

There is also the aforementioned possibility of taking the issue once more to the people, and hold a second referendum on whether to allow the government to carry on derogating. On the basis of last year’s experience, however… isn’t that a little risky? 

Last April’s referendum also gave an indication of where the public actually stands on these issues. The same scientific concerns were raised during the campaign, and the referendum was still lost (not without considerable political manoeuvring by the party in government). Why should a second referendum be any different?

“I agree with what you’re saying, but a referendum is a snapshot in time. If the same referendum were held five years before, or 10, or 20… the defeat would have been almost certain. I’d say that we’ve improved a lot. Remember also that the people who voted no, did so out of one single conviction: they don’t want spring hunting in this country. It is highly unlikely they will ever change that opinion. I won’t take it for granted, but it’s very difficult for an opinion like that to change. The people who voted yes, on the other hand, were more varied... 

They were certainly many more of them than the number of actual hunters on the island…

“Some will have been family members, and people sympathetic towards them. But there were also people who voted for political reasons: because they felt that losing the referendum would have been a blow to the government. This had an effect. There were others who thought they would be affected because they had other hobbies, even if they had nothing to do with hunting. Even the hunting fraternity itself is declining… because hunting is unsustainable, particularly in spring. All things considered: no, we should not be afraid of calling another referendum. I am not saying we’re going there, or not going there… but there is the possibility of going back to the people to decide.”

All along, however, there is yet another possibility. “This, to me, is the one that would require more courage, but which would definitely earn the most respect… because it’s the right thing to do. That is, if the present government had the courage to say: ‘You know what? We should not be killing this bird in spring. It doesn’t make sense. We are shooting ourselves in the foot, literally. Because it you shoot these birds in spring, they won’t come back again in autumn.’”

That also looks like the very least likely possibility, at least for the time being… 

“All the more reason to keep all options open.”

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