Malta has voted to continue a controversial springtime hunt of migrating birds. It's the only EU country to allow the practice. BirdLife's Steve Micklewright says the hunt is contributing to the decline of bird species.
Malta's spring hunting season is set to open on Tuesday, after the hunting lobby claimed a narrow victory in a referendum to decide whether the longstanding tradition should be kept or banned.
Results on Sunday showed the pro-hunting camp had won 51 percent of the votes, slightly ahead of the 49 percent garnered by the coalition of NGOs who called the referendum.
Malta is exempt from the European Union's Bird Directive, and is the only country in the bloc that allows the hunting of quail and turtle dove in spring, when the species fly from Africa to Europe to breed. The hunting lobby says the activity is part of a strong tradition in Malta, and that prohibiting the spring hunt could be followed by other pastimes being banned via referenda.
In an interview with DW, BirdLife Malta Executive Director Steve Micklewright explains how the hunt has impacted bird populations, and warns it has provided a cover for some hunters to target other, rarer birds.
Deutsche Welle: BirdLife Malta led the campaign against spring hunting in the leadup to this referendum. How did you feel when the results were announced?
Steve Micklewright: I've just heard the margin is a couple of thousand votes so that's made us feel devastated because it was so close. We know the default position in Malta is about 60 percent of people wish to see spring hunting ended, so having lost by such a small margin, and knowing that in their hearts most people really do want this to stop, is devastating for us.
Malta is the only country in the EU to allow recreational hunting of migrating birds in spring. It's a relatively short period running from April 14 to April 30. What impact has spring hunting had on bird populations?
Legally they're allowed to hunt two types of bird: the turtle dove and the quail. The turtle dove has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1980, so it's becoming a very rare species of bird in Europe now. And of course spring is a very bad time to hunt birds, even if you're a hunter, because you're killing birds that have survived the winter, that are strong, and are returning to places like Germany to lay eggs and breed and increase their numbers. This isn't just a Maltese problem. These birds are moving between Africa and mainland Europe - it's an African-European issue.
After the referendum results were announced, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said it was "not back to usual" for hunters, and that hunters who violated the laws would be punished. Is that an encouraging sign?
If he lives up to that promise then it's of some comfort, because one of the problems is that during the spring hunting season the hunters target very rare birds that are flying back to mainland Europe to breed, like ospreys and marsh harriers - very interesting, rare birds that are being protected in Europe by multi-million-euro conservation projects. If he deals with that problem then it would be very good. But having said that, the government we have in Malta was elected partly on the basis of a deal with hunters. Since the last election we've seen hunters gain more concessions from the government than we had seen in years. They used to have to pay a license of 50 euros - that was removed. They used to have to wear armbands to identify themselves so that we knew the legal hunters from the ones that were illegal - that was removed. So if you look at that track record you have to ask yourself how genuine the promise is.
There are already strict limits in place for hunters. No more than 11,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail can be killed in the spring season, and hunters can't kill more than two birds per day. There are also hefty penalties for anyone who does'nt follow the rules. Is there a compromise you could imagine reaching with the hunting community that would still allow the hunt to go ahead?
It's difficult for us because it is the last place in the EU where these two birds are hunted in spring. Malta is like the bottom of the barrel for this, so to say that there's a compromise when it's not allowed and doesn't take place in any other EU country just doesn't seem appropriate. There are quotas, and the quotas on paper seem quite small, but we know that hunters abuse those quotas. They're meant to self report, so when they shoot a bird they're supposed to send an SMS to say they've shot a bird. But we've got evidence over many years to show that they don't always report the number of birds they kill. When the hunters are responsible for policing themselves, as they are in Malta, it's very a hard to see how you could reach a compromise because we know some hunters disobey the rules that are set for them.
Have there been improvements in recent years to the way the hunting season in Malta is managed?
If you get caught, the penalties are the highest they've ever been. People have been in prison, they lose their hunting license and they do suffer very strict fines, but you're trying to catch hunters that are out in the Maltese countryside. It's very hard to catch them, and very hard for the police to actually pinpoint who shot what bird, where and when. Sometimes we're lucky, and then those people are penalized. The increases in penalties are of course welcome, they should be a deterrent, but in order for them to be an effective deterrent, hunters have to feel they're likely to get caught. We're obviously going to spend the next few days before the season starts on Tuesday trying to figure out how we can make sure that those hunters who break the rules are caught and punished.
Steve Micklewright is BirdLife Malta's executive director. He has been an active environmental campaigner for more than 20 years. He has previously worked for WWF and the Avon Wildlife Trust.