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Question time: Seven finches

Malta has no option but to abide by the ECJ ruling on trapping. What will happen now?

Clint Camilleri, Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries, Agriculture and Animal Rights

To be frank, hunting and trapping in Malta has for a number of years been a controversial subject with two large lobby groups, primarily FKNK and BirdLife Malta, making their cases either in favour or against these practices. For thousands, hunting and trapping is not considered just a ‘hobby’ but more of a tradition inherited from generation to generation and a passion which is an integral part of their lives. On the other hand, environmentalists argue that such practices are not sustainable and go against the context of conservation of wild birds.

The European Court of Justice’s decision given on June 21 focused solely on the way Malta applied the derogation for the live capturing of seven species of finches and not on trapping in general nor hunting. A misconception, which made rounds especially on social media soon after the verdict was issued.

It is very unfortunate that before the EU accession in 2004 the government of the day made declarations that it evidently knew were false. Guarantees were given black on white that trapping will remain untouched and such practise will not be affected. The reality was different, moreover when in 2009 finch trapping was stopped abruptly. It was only after a Labour-led government in 2014, that a derogation for finch trapping on seven particular species was applied and effectively made it possible for such practice to continue for four consecutive autumn seasons.

It is our duty to ascertain that any decision taken is backed up by strong legal and socio-cultural arguments

The EU Commission felt that Malta through the application of a derogation, went against certain parameters of the EU’s Birds Directive and eventually took Malta to the ECJ on a number of counts. Primarily, the EU Commission made a case around the lack of studies showing the capture of small numbers of finches and that enforcement was not stringent enough even though, as indicated in the same ECJ judgement, 23 per cent of trappers underwent a number of spot checks.

The government understands that the ECJ ruling is not appealable and such a decision holds. Notwithstanding, being sensitive to the effects such decision has on thousands of people and also sensitive to the notion that more effort has to be made with respect to the conservation of wild birds, we are analysing with government lawyers such judgement comprehensively. It is our duty to ascertain that any decision taken is backed up by strong legal and socio-cultural arguments and in the near future we will explain our position and the reasons behind our decisions.

At this point in time, both lobby groups publicly stated that they are confident either that there is a possibility to renegotiate another derogation or that there is no other justifiable alternative, all this based on their particular beliefs. As a government we have the responsibility and duty to take into consideration both schools of thought and based on the legal recommendations given to us by our lawyers, decisions will be taken in due course. Our decisions and actions will certainly not mirror the deceitful way it was handled back in 2004 whereby by trying to appease opposite fronts, the public, irrespective of their opinion, were deluded.

I personally understand each and every person who feels that the ECJ ruling was harsh and probably insensitive. I am an impassioned trapper at heart, who occasionally (now with my political career time seems to be less available) practises such tradition along with the rest of my family and friends. Albeit all this, it is now time to look forward, to make the necessary evaluations and analysis and eventually take the necessary decisions.

Peter Agius, Former director of EU Parliament Office in Malta

I still have very fond memories of those weekends in October or March some 30 years ago when my grandpa used to take me with him to his trapping site in Delimara. I remember the scolding I got when I triggered his trap over a pair of wagtails. Wagtails were not on the list of the seven finch species that he was after.

When the trapping decision was published in June my mind went to the hundreds of Maltese and Gozitan trappers and their families who received the news with anguish.

In 2004 we joined a family of states in a Union based on the rule of law. We voted for EU membership because we see it as Malta’s natural place. We cannot consider any other option but to observe European laws even where it hurts. The government is therefore duty bound to observe the ECJ judgement and refrain from provoking further the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. This does not mean, however, that we should give up on trapping the seven finch species in Malta.  While personally I am not fond of the idea of restricting the freedom of a wild animal, as a member of a political party with a vocation to be the mouthpiece of society I also take heed of the trappers’ call to ensure the continuation of a centuries-old tradition.

The Nationalist Party has the will and expertise to propose better solutions

While safeguarding tradition is clearly part of our ethos, it is equally clear tradition has to adapt to our age. Environmental sustainability bears a fundamental importance to us in the Nationalist Party. The challenge and the obligation of the government is therefore to combine the two imperatives into a workable solution negotiated beforehand with the European Commission, and not deployed in stealth behind its back.

When we travel abroad we notice an abundance of wildlife which we can only dream of in Malta. An environment where species prosper in protected habitats would definitely be a silent yet important improvement to our quality of life in Malta.

The significant steps forward with hunting can be taken as an illustration that combining the two imperative needs need not be impossible. This summer I saw for myself flocks of bee-eaters hovering above the fields in Rabat. Hoopoes have been observed nesting in Gozo, while most of us can now also witness birds of prey flying high up over our roads. What used to be a chimera before EU accession seems to becoming a living reality. Hunters can enjoy their hobby while respecting the rules. We need to propose a system where trappers can do the same.

Unfortunately, the approach of the Labour government has burned precious territory with the European Commission in this regard. They put in place a derogation which has its merits in principle but was implemented in clear disregard to the criteria of the Birds Directive. The result of this is that we now have an uphill struggle to reach this balance. But we will not give up. The Nationalist Party has the will and expertise to propose better solutions to the trapping issue. Those solutions will explore possibilities, already evidenced in several Court of Justice decisions, leaving a margin of manoeuvre for trapping which is well regulated and monitored and reflecting the fluctuating population of wild birds.

The solutions we will be proposing will aim at securing a very minimal impact on wild populations while ensuring that trappers can continue to exercise their passion and tend to their trapping spots. This will require cooperation by trappers and environmentalists alike. We are convinced that there is indeed a way forward which involves the trappers as collaborators in an environmental project meant to monitor bird populations and contribute to a mode detailed understanding of the health status of the seven finch species on grandpa’s list.

We are ready to put our proposals on the table with the government and use all our networks and expertise including at European level to see to a solution for the sake of this tradition to be put in the wider context of environmental sustainability.

If you would like to put any questions to the two parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

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