Updated 5.30pm, adds Birdlife statement
Protected songbirds may get caught in trappers’ nets under a government plan hatched to circumvent EU conservation rules banning the practice.
The government is proposing to conduct a “study” that would allow trappers to nab the songbirds despite the practice being outlawed two years ago. The only catch is that they would technically be required to release them back into the air again later.
The ‘catch and release’ study proposal, put to the government’s consultative Ornis committee for consideration this month, was described by sources as a way around a categorical ruling by the European courts.
In a statement on Tuesday (see below) Birdlife said it will challenge the decision in court.
In 2018, the European Court of Justice effectively banned the long-time practice in Malta of trapping protected songbirds.
The Luxembourg court declared that, by allowing the live capture of seven species of protected wild finches, Malta had been failing to fulfil its conservation obligations under the EU’s Wild Birds Directive.
Ever since the judgement, Malta has not opened a trapping season for finches for fear of facing legal proceedings from Brussels.
Government sources, however, say the administration has now cooked up a way around the matter.
They explained that, in its judgement, the ECJ had declared that one of the reasons it was against allowing finch trapping to carry on was because there was no local data being gathered to prove where the birds being trapped were migrating from.
This lack of scientific data made it impossible for European authorities to assess the impact Maltese trapping was having on specific European songbird populations.
We hope to cut down on illegal trapping and give the trappers a chance to practise something they love
According to the government’s proposal, the finch trapping study would seek to collect this missing data.
The suggestion is to have trappers register with the authorities to be able to take part in the data-collection study that would run through the finch migratory season in the autumn.
The trappers would then be allowed to trap the protected finches on condition that they release the birds afterwards and document those wearing identification tags – known as rings – from other countries.
This study, the sources said, would hit two ‘birds’ with one stone for the government.
“We have a problem of people going out and laying nets for finches illegally. So, by giving trappers this option we hope to drastically cut down on illegal trapping and give the trappers a chance to practice something they love,” the government source said.
The study proposal is expected to be decided on at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, Times of Malta's government insider added that the study would also collect the missing data that could help the government in its bid to see finch trapping reintroduced with the European Commission’s blessing. Malta has held regular talks with the commission in the hope of bringing controversial finch trapping back.
Shortly after the ECJ’s 2018 ruling outlawing the practice, the government announced that nets could once again be laid, but this time only to catch two species of unprotected bird – the golden plover and song thrush.
The government had done this by increasing the hole-size of trapping nets allowed to be used so that smaller protected songbirds, like finches, would be able to wriggle out and back to safety.
Conservationists Birdlife, however, have described the move as being intended to allow trappers to ignore the ECJ’s ruling.
Birdlife to challenge decision in court
In a statement on Tuesday, Birdlife aid it was surprised to learn that the government is planning to challenge the ECJ's ruling through the "study" and it would challenge the decision in court.
CEO Mark Sultana said: “It is, to say the least, absurd and irresponsible for the government to take this route. In the past it has weakened and amended laws purely to create a smokescreen for the illegal killing of birds. Now it wants to create a smokescreen for tens of thousands of songbirds to be trapped by creatively classifying it as a scientific study.”
Birdlife said there had been various changes in laws to appease the hunting and trapping lobbyin the past 10 years - from the removal of curfews during raptor migration to allowing hunting at Majjistral Park, and from opening rabbit hunting seasons without any restrictions to weakening taxidermy laws allowing further abuse of the Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations.
"This is a record that only a hunter minister could be proud of while it shames the rest of the country," it said.