Just a month after the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that Malta was violating EU rules by allowing the trapping of protected finches, the government’s consultative committee, Ornis, recommended that an autumn trapping season should be opened for two unprotected species, the song thrush and the golden plover.

Malta has regularly implemented two ‘derogations’ (legal exceptions from the EU’s Birds Directives), thus allowing the trapping of (protected) finches and (unprotected) song thrushes and golden plover. Both exemptions have been the subject of EU infringement proceedings. While the European Commission has taken Malta to court over the trapping of finches, legal action on the others has not yet been pursued.

According to BirdLife Malta, the Attorney General’s advice on the matter identified various “risks” that would arise about opening the autumn trapping season in the face of the European Court’s judgment. Sources in Brussels have indicated that if the government went ahead with opening the trapping season in October, court proceedings against Malta would almost certainly follow.

BirdLife also said that the Environment and Resources Authority had expressed concern over the number of nets that would be used during the season, which the European Court had also identified as a form of “bycatch” or secondary catch. While the hunters’ federation is recommending nets with holes smaller than 45mm should be forbidden, that trappers would only operate one site instead of two and this would be kept covered during the night, BirdLife was sceptical such measures would suffice.

Despite the Attorney General’s advice about the risks Malta was running – and the Commission’s clear indication that court proceedings are likely to be instituted if any decision to open the autumn trapping season is made – the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Animal Rights sees no reason why the season should not open.

It may be ‘brave’ of him to make this decision but is it wise? In justification, he states that the autumn trapping season is for two unprotected birds, the song thrush and golden plover, and, therefore, this does not flout the recent European Court ruling on finches.

But the parliamentary secretary is losing sight of the wider picture and Malta’s already dismal reputation in this field. The government’s extension of the hunting season in the autumn. The continuation of bird shooting in the spring (and the shocking annual slaughter of protected migratory birds that accompanies it). The reintroduction of finch trapping after it was phased out some years ago, on which the European Court has already pronounced itself against Malta. All these undermine the country’s position and affect the European Commission’s determination to bring Malta to heel on this matter.

The government is proposing a tightening up of procedures for autumn bird trapping but it is highly unlikely these will impress the European Commission. Given Malta’s already generally low international reputation on bird hunting and the fact that Brussels has successfully dealt with other countries over bird trapping and brought them into line, the government must decide whether it wants its name to be dragged through the European Court simply to satisfy a ‘hobby’ that the majority of people in Europe regard as unacceptable.

If the government persists with permitting bird trapping, Malta’s taxpayers risk paying a very high price.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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