Updated 1.20pm with reactions
Finch trapping in Malta has been declared illegal by the European Court of Justice in a landmark judgment on Thursday.
The ECJ declared that, by adopting a derogation regime allowing the live-capturing of seven species of wild finches, Malta has failed to fulfil its obligations under the European Wild Birds Directive.
The judgment was delivered a short while ago by the ECJ in Luxembourg.
Hunters and conservationists were both anxiously awaiting the landmark judgment.
In its first reaction, Birdlife Malta, which has been campaigning for the abolition of trapping, welcomed the ruling saying this meant there would be no more finch trapping in Malta.
The court decided Malta cannot continue applying a derogation allowing an autumn trapping season after a lengthy legal battle that started in 2015.
EU law prohibits finch trapping and the practice was phased out in Malta in 2009, following an initial derogation obtained as part of the country's EU accession treaty.
The practice was reintroduced in 2014 despite objections from the European Commission.
While Malta had insisted this was in line with a derogation to the Birds Directive, the Commission disagreed and took the case before the ECJ.
ECJ questions law enforcement
In its ruling, the court questioned the level of enforcement by the authorities during the trapping season, saying not enough evidence was produced by the Maltese government.
The fact that merely 23 per cent of hunters have been subject to individual checks seems inadequate- ECJ
"It considers that in the context of Malta, characterised by a very high density of licence holders, namely over 4 000, and of registered trapping stations, namely over 6,400, the fact that merely 23 per cent of hunters have been subject to individual checks seems inadequate,” the ECJ said.
"Furthermore, evidence shows that failure to observe the restrictions relating to authorised catch periods and locations, in particular by trapping inside ‘Natura 2000’ sites, has been rather frequent during the 2014 autumn capturing season,” it added.
In the judgment, the court ruled that the 2014 and 2015 measures authorising the autumn trapping of finches did not comply with the directive since they did not contain any reference to the absence of another satisfactory solution.
Secondly, the court concluded that Malta had not complied with the condition of the directive according to which the permitted derogation must concern only "small numbers" of birds.
The court noted in particular that, according to a 2007 study by BirdLife Malta, trapping in Malta was so intensive that only a handful of each of the common finch species regularly breed on the islands, whereas they breed in high numbers in other areas of the Mediterranean.
Consequently, the court ruled that Malta has failed to fulfil its obligations under the Directive.
In a statement the Commission noted that the ruling confirmed its position that there was no justification for finch trapping in Malta.
“Finches are strictly protected under the EU Birds Directive. Malta had to end finch trapping by the end of 2008 after a transition period it had negotiated when acceding to the EU had expired. The Commission now expects Malta to fully respect the court's judgement and to stop this practice once and for all,” the statement read.
The Commission also recalled that it was seeking to stop similar practices in other member states. Last month, Brussels sent a reasoned opinion to Spain as part of an infringement procedure addressing finch trapping.
Government to evaluate ruling
On its part the government said it was evaluating the ruling in detail so that any decision it took would be legally sound. It said that the decision could not be appealed.
It noted that, in recent years,it had done its utmost to keep the tradition alive by opening the trapping of finch birds season between 2014 and 2017. All available resources were used to defend the case in collaboration with the organisations that represented trappers, the government said.
In a tweet, former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil accused Joseph Muscat of buying trappers' votes when it was clear that trapping was illegal.
The EU Court judgment that bird trapping is illegal and must stop is no surprise. We paid a heavy political price for telling trappers the truth from the start. Instead, @JosephMuscat_JM bought their votes by cynically promising them to keep trapping. He deceived them too. pic.twitter.com/FlcJ3zleYT— Simon Busuttil (@SimonBusuttil) June 21, 2018
AD spokesman Simon Galea:"This decision by the European Court of Justice means that our natural environment and Malta's flora and fauna will be afforded more protection. Government took trappers for a ride. It peddled the myth that trapping could continue unabated. Fortunately for those who love their country and its natural environment, the ECJ has confirmed what we knew all along: trapping is illegal. It is now government's duty to see that trapping is not allowed through proper and effective enforcement."
Kaċċaturi San Ubertu KSU deplored the deceptive and alarmist arguments brought up by Birdlife Malta in relation to the trapping of finches, based on which the traditional trapping of certain species of birds as currently practiced has been termed illegal.
"This blatant manipulation of fact influenced the European Court and its verdict does not reflect the reality of a controlled and limited practice of a substantial part of Maltese society that have the greatest respect and love of birds that should be strengthened and not punished.
"KSU will use all means at its disposal to analyse the verdict in respect of any issues noted by the Court and in line with its purpose to defend our practices it will act accordingly."
The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) welcomed the decision and called upon the Prime Minister to accept the ruling and prepare the trapping community for a future without trapping.
The German-based NGO said it was planning to conduct a large scale operation against finch trapping in Malta in autumn.
“We are currently mobilising all available resources to ensure that we have a maximum number of teams in the field during peak finch migration in October and November.
"If all parties pull together finch trapping will soon go down where it belongs, in history books”, CABS wildlife crime officer Fiona Burrows said.
The hunters’ federation said it disagreed with the verdict but the judgment did not, in any way, remove Malta's right to apply a correct derogation in future for the trapping of finches to continue.
It called on the government to discuss the alleged shortcomings with the Commission so that when Malta reapplied the derogation in October it would be in conformity with the requisites and the directive.
Unless this was done, it would seem that Malta was not in the same EU bloc as other countries.
The FKNK said this was being said without prejudice to any other action it could take to safeguard trapping.
The Nationalist Party PN said thousands of trappers will not be able to practice their hobby because of the bad government decisions.
The government’s promises to trappers ended up being empty ones because the government did not satisfy the conditions of the Birds Directive which permit a derogation for a small number of birds.
Through its actions in 2014 and 2015, the government destroyed the hobby and as a result Malta lost its case and also had to pay expenses.
The government created a system with a number of birds per trapper, without consultation. This was because it had been drawn up without plan and not in a serious manner because it had completely ignored reports on bird populations.
The government said that 27,000 birds were going to be caught but issued licenses for 40,000 birds.
This was when the government knew that the European Directive required monitoring of the bird population for the derogation to come into affect. But the government opted to challenge the commission and did away with the principle of application of derogation.
Now that the case was lost because of the government’s hard headedness, the PN appealed for a serious dialogue with the commission and with trappers to find a way how trapping could be done in a sustainable way through a serious plan which would not breach the Bird’s Directive while it would also not attract more condemnations towards Malta from which everyone would suffer.
The Labour Party PL replied that had the PN been decent, it would have apologised with trappers rather than attack the government in a bid to score political points.
It should have apologised because its leaders, including one who was still an MP, had promised trappers they would continue to trap but they had to stop in 2008 until the change in government in 2013.
Even if they were, rightly so, disappointed, trappers knew that it was only the PL who did all it could to defend their tradition.
The decision taken today should be studied well and the government should explore all possibilities.
But there was no doubt that trappers knew that the PL had kept its work and did its utmost for them to be able to continue to practice their hobby.
The PN was just a political opportunist who always left hunters and trappers on their own or, worse than that, stabbed them in the back, the PL said.
Birdlife CEO Mark Sultana noted that the ruling would have even wider repercussions and said it was a clear indication that trapping on other species such as the golden plover and song trush would also be deemed illegal in the near future.
For this reason he called on the government to ban all forms of trapping, or otherwise face more ECJ rulings.
Asked what would happen if government were to ignore this decision, Mr Sultana said this would trigger an infringement procedure and daily fines against Malta.
The decision to allow trapping was a political gamble by the Labour Party which had gone wrong.