Imagine this: animal rights’ activists discover the carcasses of a family of swans. A group of rogue hunters is implicated in the killing. Enforcement authorities investigate but the suspects remain elusive. Animal lovers cry foul but the hunting federation defends legitimate hunting. Sounds familiar? Only this did not occur in Malta or Gozo but near the Dutch town of Alphen aan den Rijn last August.

Now fast forward to January 2017: 12 swans settle in Gozo and make a small pond their wintering home for weeks, a first in Malta’s ornithological history. But another first, perhaps more remarkable than the appearance of the majestic birds, was the fact that the birds were jointly cared for in a feat of cooperation between FKNK, KSU, BLM and WBRU.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp, who presented a petition expressing concerns over the perceived hunting situation in Malta. It was her first visit to Malta and I hope her fact-finding mission would help formulate a more objective view of the situation.

When this administration took office in 2013, it faced a very challenging reality on the ground. On the one hand, we were confronted with a state of neglect, fragmentation, weak enforcement, antiquated regulatory practices, deficient legislation, inadequate penalties for abuse, a civil society polarised along the sharply-drawn lines of either extreme pro- or anti-hunting views and an unenviable international reputation. On the other hand, the government faced unprecedented scrutiny not only from the EU and international conservation watchdogs but also from conservation NGOs, hunting organisations and citizens, who rightly expected Malta to clean up its act.

The choice we had was either to continue along a slippery slope of neglect and fence-sitting or implement reforms to transform the sector. The first possibility was not an option and, instead, we put all our political will and resources squarely behind the second choice.

In only four years, we turned this grim situation around. A dedicated structure, WBRU, was set up and has successfully driven major legal, administrative, regulatory and enforcement reforms that produced results that are nothing short of spectacular.

Today, Malta boasts one of the most comprehensive and robust regulatory regimes concerning hunting and conservation of wild birds in Europe. Penalties for abuse were doubled and, in the case of most serious offences, increased tenfold. Old, costly and inefficient regulatory procedures were scrapped and replaced with a modern technology-driven licensing system, deploying pioneering state-of-the-art real-time reporting solutions.

In only four years, we doubled enforcement deployment, invested in training and capacity building, increased patrols sixfold and reduced bird-related crime fourfold. Whenever warranted, the government implemented measures that sent a signal of zero-tolerance towards abuse.

From a virtual pariah state when it comes to conservation of wild birds, Malta earned international recognition as being among the best practice examples. The country now chairs and co-chairs important international networks on the eradication of illegal killing of birds. From a passive recipient of international criticism, Malta assumed its rightful place as a constructive and active contributor to international bird conservation policy, punching well above its weight.

Malta has changed rapidly and progressed towards striking a delicate balance between the aspirations of citizens and the need to protect biodiversity. But this delicate balance can still be upset by polarisation, where civil society tends to coalesce around the pro- and anti-hunting extremes.

However, I am confident we will overcome this division, and, as the recent joint caring for swans by the hunters and conservationists has shown, we are moving along a positive trajectory.

Roderick Galdes, Parliamentary Secretary For Agriculture, Fisheries And Animal Rights