A hunting ban in autumn was unheard of until last week. Joe Perici Calascione, hunting federation president, tells Kurt Sansone the decision unfairly punished law-abiding hunters.

Joe Perici Calascione looks back at the events of the past week and utters in a sarcastic tone: “what a fun time this has been”.

But his is not an attempt to look cool. Sarcasm is the release valve for pent up frustration over the government’s decision to suspend the autumn hunting season and anger at the unauthorised hunters’ protest last Sunday.

As he sits at his desk, Mr Perici Calascione assures me that FKNK, the hunting federation, has as much control over its members as is plausible for an organisation its size.

He says it is only a minority of members who break the law and insists they do not deserve to be called hunters.

Society did not apply collective punishment when some priests were accused of child abuse… Should we accept it now just because we are hunters?

The FKNK has some 10,000 members, making it by far the largest hunting organisation.

Last year, the organisation kicked out 15 people after they were caught infringing hunting regulations and FKNK officials reported some 30 cases of illegal acts to the police, he adds.

Anticipating my next question he says that seven of the 11 hunters charged in court over last Sunday’s disturbances during the unauthorised protest are FKNK members.

The organisation will set up a special disciplinary board to hear the cases against the seven hunters and recommend what action is warranted.

“The case is not about hunting infringements, which would be a clear cut suspension, but about actions outside the field that are unacceptable in a civilised world and which have harmed the reputation the FKNK has tried hard to build over the years,” Mr Perici Calascione says.

He insists the violence and “barbaric acts” witnessed during and after the protest could not go unnoticed.

However, he points out that even if the FKNK fires errant members these may still sign up with other hunting organisations and obtain a licence.

“We have been clamouring for years to have the law changed so that hunters banned from one organisation for committing hunting-related offences will not be able to sign up with another,” he says, making it clear that he is not referring to St Hubert Hunters that has a strict code of conduct for members.

But how does Mr Perici Calascione react to criticism that in the statement issued by FKNK after the incidents it condemned the aggression while saying that it understood hunters’ frustration?

Birdlife executive director Steve Micklewright, writing in Times of Malta last Friday, said the statement showed the “very little respect” the FKNK hierarchy had for Malta’s independence celebrations – the protest was held on Independence Day – and the well-being of birdwatchers attacked by hunters in Buskett.

Mr Perici Calascione is unfazed. He argues that the government’s decision to close the season because of the actions of a single unlicensed hunter, who shot a stork, is unfair.

“Society did not apply collective punishment when some priests were accused of child abuse or when members of the judiciary erred. Should we accept it now just because we are hunters?”

He says law-abiding hunters are frustrated because they have been deprived of a regular hunting season through no fault of their own.

“I totally understand them because I am also frustrated with the situation but this does not mean I condone the illegal actions of a few irrational savages,” he says.

He reiterates that what the hunters who protested on Sunday did was “wrong, unthinkable in a civilised society” and turned back the clock to a time the FKNK had worked hard to move away from.

But Mr Perici Calascione expresses a different sort of frustration. He says the anti-hunting feeling in society has been growing over the years and points a finger at what he says is a sustained mud-slinging campaign perpetrated by environmental groups.

I point out that the killing of protected birds is a reality and not mud-slinging.

He insists that groups like Birdlife and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter “amplify” incidents and argues that the use of certain words, such as ‘massacre’, paint an untrue picture of the situation.

“Massacres do not happen any longer. What we have are one-off incidents, which I still condemn.

“While 30 years ago we may have argued that from a flock of marsh harriers only one would continue on its journey, the situation today is radically different.

“I have witnessed whole flocks of protected birds passing over Malta and continuing their journey unharmed.”

He says environmentalists and the media fail to appreciate that hunting practices have evolved and enforcement has improved. The FKNK has partnered with international organisations and based its arguments on scientific facts, he adds.

Having occupied various official posts within the hunting federation for the past 30 years, Mr Perici Calascione says the change in attitude among hunters is palpable.

“Illegalities do happen but the same can be said for hunting infringements all over Europe. I condemn any sort of illegality but it makes no sense to punish law-abiding hunters. My plea is for all stakeholders to build on this,” he says.

With a spring hunting referendum expected next year, the incidents may have conditioned casual observers to vote in favour of a ban but Mr Perici Calascione does not believe all is lost.

He says most people have no interest in the hunting issue except when faced with incidents of uncivilised behaviour like those that happened on Sunday.

The FKNK now faces a stern test to convince people that the absolute majority of its members are law-abiding, he says.

“Political parties have lost the trust of electors in the past and regained it later so I cannot see why the FKNK cannot regain people’s trust,” he says, hoping that voters will realise that his organisation has distanced itself from the “stupid” acts of the few.

Mr Perici Calascione refutes the suggestion that hunters feel betrayed by the government’s decision to suspend the autumn hunting season until October 10.

“The word ‘hurt’ more aptly describes how we feel about what happened because with honest dialogue we have made progress over the past year towards sustainable hunting,” he says.

It could be Karmenu Vella’s hearing is the reason for the ban but if this is the case… all Joseph Muscat did was put the magnifying glass on Malta

The FKNK was taken completely by surprise by the government’s decision to stop the hunting season.

Mr Perici Calascione speaks of the shock he felt when he heard news of the suspension, even though the FKNK had in a statement some days earlier warned hunters that closing the season was a possibility if illegalities persisted.

“The government had warned us that if another stork was killed it would close the season but to our knowledge there was no other incident involving a stork except for a report in Times of Malta that quoted unnamed sources saying that another was shot down.”

He says no police reports were filed of another stork killing and claims that the newspaper story seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Mr Perici Calascione will not speculate as to whether European Commissioner-designate Karmenu Vella’s hearing with MEPs tomorrow had any bearing on government’s decision – there is anticipation that hunting will be a bone of contention for some MEPs.

“It could be Karmenu Vella’s hearing is the reason for the ban but if this is the case, rather than putting a lid on the hunting issue, all Joseph Muscat did was put the magnifying glass on Malta.”

He says that applying an outright ban at a time when seven million hunters across Europe are legitimately practicing their hobby is unheard of and will draw the wrong attention.

Mr Perici Calascione argues that hunters are frontline environmentalists since their hobby puts them directly in touch with nature. He insists that if it were up to hunters, the natural habitat would remain in pristine condition.

It is a claim that will land a cynical smile on the faces of many, who regard hunting as a destructive hobby.

He replies to my look of disbelief with a question: “How many trees have you planted over the years because I have planted hundreds?”

Hunting done within the limits of scientific knowledge about the protection of species is one way of helping nature conservation, he insists.

“Anyone who believes the FKNK is an organisation that wants to drive bird species into extinction is mistaken because we realise that nature conservation and sustainable hunting are important to ensure our passion can go on in the future.”

The autumn season will re-open on October 11. Does he fear a backlash from hunters?

“Two wrongs don’t make a right and the FKNK is working with members to ensure they remain calm so that when the season opens everything goes back to normal,” he says.

The FKNK will continue with its legal battle against the ban, leaving no stone unturned, he promises.

It will be a hard job for hunting officials like Mr Perici Calascione to keep tabs on his members but he is convinced the vast majority realise sustainable hunting is the only way forward.