As spring fades into the distance, like the fading of the Maltese landscape from green to brown, there is much to celebrate about the resilience of nature in the face of the onslaught brought every year by spring hunting. Black-winged stilts are once again attempting to breed at Għadira nature reserve, despite four birds being illegally targeted during migration.
The sights and sounds of swifts appear ever more frequent in our urban areas where they can safely breed because hunting is thankfully forbidden close to populated areas.
In fact, swifts only became a regular breeding bird again in Malta during the few years when the European Commission did its job and prevented spring hunting taking place here. It does make you ask what other birds would breed in these islands if the spectre of spring hunting was removed forever.
But hang on a minute; according to both the hunting lobby and sometimes even the government, the statements I have just made about birds and the impact of hunting on them are actually propaganda or, at best, an (extremely) polarised view of the situation. So much so, that even Roderick Galdes, the man in government responsible for animal welfare, wrote a long piece in this very newspaper trying to explain the ‘facts’ of spring hunting.
The general drift of Galdes’s article was that spring hunting is acceptable because the EU allows exceptions to the rule and Malta has more police undertaking enforcement than any other country that has hunting.
But when the head of the government’s Wild Birds Regulation Unit, Sergei Golovkin, was questioned about spring hunting during a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, an exasperated interviewer was heard to exclaim: “But it isn’t working!”
What did seem to be working, at least in the short term, was the bullying tactics of the FKNK hunters’ federation. After launching a judicial protest against Chris Packham, an independent journalist who came to Malta to uncover the realities of spring hunting here, the Data Protection Commissioner wrote to Birdlife Malta saying that any alleged breaches of data protection undertaken by Packham would be laid at the door of Birdlife Malta.
We have since met the Commissioner and he confirmed that they would be launching a case against us following further complaints by the FKNK and individual hunters. If you watch Packham’s films you will see hunters on public land, sometimes being interviewed by him and on one memorable occasion, one hunter accusing him of “provocating”.
Even though these were films made independently by Packham and with Birdlife Malta having no editorial control whatsoever, the Data Protection Commissioner is adamant there is a case for us to answer.
Equally worrying was the behaviour of the police. It began with two Birdlife Malta staff being called in for questioning, followed by another being arrested, then Packham being questioned for many hours and our conservation manager also being ‘invited for a discussion’.
It does make you ask what other birds would breed in these islands if the spectre of spring hunting was removed forever
By this time, we took legal advice and decided this was a form of intimidation and harassment, and so Nicholas Barbara would not attend.
After we discovered that the police had allowed the FKNK to employ the services of a police officer to assist them in keeping the public out of Miżieb, a publicly owned woodland, while refusing our request for an officer to ensure rapid liaison when our volunteers witnessed illegal hunting, we decided that we needed to ask for an official investigation. We have now filed a complaint with the Police Internal Affairs Department.
Of further concern was the reaction to the Public Broadcasting Service following the transmission of a feature about spring hunting on Moira Delia’s Animal Diaries. After refusing an invitation to have a right of reply on the following week’s episode, the FKNK successfully applied pressure to PBS to cut short the programme so they could air their half-hour documentary promoting hunting.
Subsequently, a substantial amount of time was given to the FKNK to present their views on spring hunting, Packham and Birdlife Malta on TVAM.
Some very serious allegations were made without any right of reply so far being offered. Once again, we have launched a complaint because we consider that PBS is bowing to the bullying of the hunting lobby and their impartiality is being compromised.
Why is this happening? At the end of the spring hunting season, we revealed that the lawyer acting for the FKNK is Kathleen Grima, who works for Emanuel Mallia and Associates Advocates. This is the law firm that carries the name of the minister responsible for the police and PBS.
While Mallia denies any involvement in the law firm that bears his name, one cannot help but ask what it must feel like to receive an officious letter from a lawyer with your minister’s name emblazoned across the top. Surely, to remove any doubt about potential political interference, would it not make sense for the law firm’s name to be changed with Mallia’s name becoming completely dissociated from it?
Or is that just propaganda?
Steve Micklewright is executive director of Birdlife Malta.