Cabinet asked to consider turning over Miżieb and l-Aħrax to hunters

Proposal to formalise stewardship agreement for hunters over lands at Miżieb and l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa

The 2019 Mizieb fires: their likeliest cause was the burning of pruned branches in some adjacent fields
The 2019 Mizieb fires: their likeliest cause was the burning of pruned branches in some adjacent fields

Prime Minister Robert Abela has resurrected a proposal that hunting grounds in l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa, and Miżieb, be turned over to hunters under a formal management agreement. 

MaltaToday is informed the proposal was floated during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. No resistance to the proposal was raised. 

A government source said the proposal was meant to formalise claims the main hunting lobby FKNK has over the lands, which they occupy during the spring and autumn hunting seasons. 

But these are public lands to which citizens also demand their enjoyment, without the risk of being run off the grounds by hunters. 

The Maltese hunting season was opened in April for 6,000 licensed hunters despite the EU’s ban on spring hunting, and the coronavirus pandemic preventing people from emerging from their homes. 

There is long-standing dispute between hunters and environmentalists over whether the Miżieb woodland is a legal hunting reserve. In 2017, Magistrate Charmaine Galea today acquitted a BirdLife Malta volunteer, Nimrod Mifsud, of criminal charges of trespassing in Miżieb, brought by the police in 2014 following a report by the hunting lobby FKNK against Mifsud and the BBC naturalist Chris Packham, whom he accompanied to Mizieb for part of his documentary series on spring hunting in Malta. 

READ MORE Remains of protected species found in Mizieb ‘bird cemetery’

As Packham and his crew were filming, they were stopped by two angry hunters, who demanded they turn the cameras off. Following the incident, the police, on the insistence of the FKNK, charged Nimrod Mifsud with “trespassing” at Mizieb and Ahrax. 

The FKNK claims Mizieb is a legal hunting reserve, by virtue of an agreement signed by former Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, which placed the woodland under the “administration” of the FKNK. 

But magistrate Charmaine Galea dismissed the FKNK’s claims, noting they had failed to present a site plan of Mizieb and an authentic copy of the elusive 1986 agreement. 

BirdLife had said that the decision confirmed that Miżieb and Aħrax are in fact public land and that the countryside was free to all. “Since 1986, during the hunting season, anyone who is not a hunter was denied access to such grounds unless duly authorised – something which should now change.” 

But last year,  the government had announced it would collaborate with the hunting lobby on a management plan at Miżieb, after the Environment and Resources Authority and Ambjent Malta concluded an extensive analysis of the fires which had engulfed the area between 22-23 June 2019

Former environment minister José Herrera at Mizieb (third from left), with now Gozo minister Clint Camilleri next to him, who has been granted responsibility for the Wild Birds Regulation Unit and is himself a hunter, and next to him, the CEO of the hunting lobby, Lino Farrugia
Former environment minister José Herrera at Mizieb (third from left), with now Gozo minister Clint Camilleri next to him, who has been granted responsibility for the Wild Birds Regulation Unit and is himself a hunter, and next to him, the CEO of the hunting lobby, Lino Farrugia

Around 180,000 square metres of Miżieb woodlands were affected by the fire, representing about 25% of the whole afforested site. Some 4,600 trees were destroyed, most of these including the Aleppo Pine, Olive Tree, Gum Trees, and blue-leaved wattle. 

The ERA did not get into what caused the fire to spread, which is currently the subject of a police investigation. But sources involved in policing the island’s green outdoor spaces said the likeliest cause was the burning of pruned branches in nearby fields. 

The Civil Protection Department head Emmanuel Psaila said it was the largest fire he had seen in recent years, with 16 firefighters battling the flames as little pockets of scorched earth kept re-igniting under the blaring heat of the June sun. 

Miżieb is predominantly an artificial monospecific forest plantation of Aleppo Pines, mixed with invasive alien species, making them highly flammable species. 

The ERA and Ambjent Malta, which is the former PARKS directorate, were tasked with drawing up a management plan that would incorporate the setting-up of passages and other features such rubble walls and indigenous trees that are more resistant to fire. 

The move was also intended at reducing the number of people who visit the area in the summer period, where BBQs and open flames and litter can easily lead to the destruction of vast areas. 

The hunters’ federation had already urged the authorities back in 2016 to seal off public access to the Mizieb woodland. Stretching some two kilometres across St Paul’s Bay, Mellieha and Manikata, Mizieb is one of the largest wooded areas in Malta.

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