Times change, some things don’t
Since Birdlife Malta launched the Your Voice Counts campaign to encourage voters to ask election candidates questions about access to the countryside, public health and safety when visiting the countryside and the protection of nature, our organisation has been subjected to attacks in the media by representatives of the hunters.
Clearly, in the eyes of the hunting fraternity, anyone that presents evidence and a reasoned opinion about the impacts of hunting on Malta’s people and wildlife is ‘deceitful’. Now our team that presented a proposal to a government committee for a sensible system to check that hunters are fully declaring the birds they shoot in autumn has led to accusations of Birdlife being “arrogant and insolent”.
Of course, it is not the slightest bit arrogant or insolent to demand that foreigners are banned from the Maltese countryside, as the hunters’ federation – FKNK – has done, apparently considering that such aggressive and abusive messages are the best way to influence people into giving them what they want, which, in a nutshell, is to be able to shoot more birds of more different species in more places and for a greater portion of the year, to be granted exemptions from EU wildlife protection decrees.
There are a few simple facts that hunters seem to ignore.
The first is that hunting in the springtime is prohibited by EU legislation and, despite EU guidelines on sustainable hunting explicitly stating that derogations should not be applied for species of conservation concern, Malta persists in doing just this.
Despite attempts by the FKNK to direct attention towards derogations overseas, only Malta allows hunting of turtle doves and quail in spring.
Another fact is that hunting is possible in 80 per cent of the Maltese countryside, including nature parks and areas that are supposed to be protected for their importance to wildlife.
Hunters like to claim that Malta is special, arguing that because it is so small they have little impact on bird populations when they shoot them, conveniently ignoring the fact they hunted several species to extinction nationally, including the legendary Maltese falcon.
Malta is indeed special. It is the most densely populated country in the EU with the third highest rate of obesity in the EU at 21 per cent. Malta also has some of the most fantastic natural landscapes protected, in theory at least, as Natura 2000 sites.
Yet, a reasonable request from voters to have more and safer access to the countryside by forbidding hunting in the small proportion of the island that is supposed to be protected for its value to nature is greeted with a hysterical reaction from the hunters that currently illegally occupy large parts of it. Surely, the majority of Malta’s people have a right to get outside in the open countryside without the health and safety risks associated with people firing shotguns a few metres away.
While demands for safer access to the countryside would seem very reasonable, not one senior politician from either of the main parties has uttered a word in support of this during the run up to the general election. Instead, we hear of plans by the PN to legalise structures that have been built without the right permission. Our requests for clarification from the PN about what this means for all the illegal hunting structures in the countryside has not been answered.
There has also been talk from the Labour leader of ending the alleged ‘gold-plating’ that ‘restricts’ hunting in Malta. We have listed our concerns about what this might mean, including the end of the restriction on afternoon hunting during the peak bird migration period in autumn but the Labour leader has not seen fit to provide any clarification either.
Add to this the fact that hardly any candidates from the main political parties answered Birdlife’s questionnaire about these and other issues and you have to ask yourself: are they frightened of something?
This election campaign seems to have been marred by vote hunting by both main parties.
If you have an illegal building, do not worry because it will soon be given retrospective permission. If you have an illegal boathouse that scars Malta’s greatest asset, its precious coastline, please do not concern yourself because if you vote in a certain way you will be allowed to keep it. And if you are a hunter, please do not worry about the fact that your actions deprive Malta of a countryside that everyone should be able to enjoy because some politicians are so frightened of you not voting for them they might give you even more privileges so you can practice your ‘socio-cultural’ hobby to the detriment of Malta’s (and Europe’s) birds and the majority of the electorate.
It does not have to be this way, of course. Democracy and the interests of the majority of voters can still make a difference.
Your voice really does count.
Steve Micklewright is executive director of Birdlife Malta.