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Hunting in Malta: is the obsession justified?

On Monday 25th of March, the newly elected Maltese Government announced the opening of a spring hunting season between the 10th and 30th April. The conditions have actually deteriorated from the previous year, with an increase of 2 hunting days, and the waiving of a €50 licence fee. While the controlled act of hunting on non-endangered species does not bother me as much, I would like to understand why this practice is so contentious when compared to other environmental ‘hobbies’ or practices.

For non-Maltese people, or for any Maltese people who have been living under a rock for these past 9 years, spring hunting is illegal under the auspices of the Birds Directive. This is an international law adopted by the European Union which lists certain species that have to be protected and not persecuted. Furthermore, it also lists certain areas which should be protected for the conservation of these protected birds species. These areas are called Special Protection Areas (SPAs), of which we have 13 in Malta covering 5.15% of the entire country.

The island of Filfla, one of Malta’s SPAs (Photo credit: Lysy)

Exceptions can be made to allow spring hunting through the application of a derogation: “to permit, under strictly supervised conditions and on a selective basis, the capture, keeping or other judicious use of certain birds in small numbers.” Quoting The Times (Tuesday 26th March, 2013):

 “In 2009, the European Court of Justice found Malta guilty of not abiding to these conditions when it opened spring hunting seasons in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 for all licensed hunters and without limits”.

Why is Hunting in Malta always the centre of much heated debate?

For the sake of argument, I will compare hunting to fishing. Both involve the use of a stick (one with line and hook, the other with gun powder) used to kill an unsuspecting animal (one is a fish, the other is a bird). Both practices can be used as a form of recreation or for subsistence (meaning the user depends on this practice for food or income), but in the case of Malta hunting is mainly used for recreational purposes.

In most countries, hunting and fishing are listed and managed under the same organisations since they are very similar (Photo credit: HuntingAndFishing.co.uk)

Both practices are regulated by the EU, in which the Maltese government has to incorporate international law into national legislation to adhere to EU policies. Both practices involve species which are endangered and migratory – so they are not only important to the Maltese but are also important to other countries and Europe in general.

SO WHY ARE FISHERMEN LAMBASTED AND MADE TO ADHERE STRICTLY TO THESE LAWS, WHILE HUNTERS ARE LESS REGULATED? This not mentioning the fact that fishermen are providing a service to the public in general, which flocks to the Marsaxlokk fish market to buy fresh fish!

A traditional Maltese hunting hide (Photo credit: Lawrie Phipps)

Firstly, fishing is of more pressing concern since it ends up being an economic issue. However, the reason why hunting is unregulated, or why governments have historically dragged their feet to find a solution, is obvious and worrying – VOTES! Which government will ever have the balls to stand up to this cohort and risk losing c. 30,000 votes? The situation gets more worrying with passing time. Upon the announcement of this year’s spring hunting season, the FKNK (Federation for Hunting and Conservation –in Malta) issued the following statement: “The situation is that it’s better than what we had but surely not enough. We were expecting more,” “The situation is that it’s better than what we had but surely not enough. We were expecting more.” – are you kidding me? You were expecting MORE? It is a daunting thought to just imagine what more they were expecting, when they are currently practicing their delizzju (Maltese word for hobby) on a derogation with strict rules.

huunters

Hunters using their vote as a bargaining chip in 1993 during a protest. The banner reads ‘15,000 hunters + wives + extended kin = votes’. This led to hunting laws being relaxed prior to the 1996 general election. If this has happened before, who will say it has not or will not happen again? (Source: Falzon, M.A. (2008). Flights of Passion: Hunting, ecology and politics in Malta and the Mediterranean. Anthropology Today, 24 (1), pp. 15-20.)

Why is this group of people being given such power on the basis of the threat of their vote? Why are they being allowed to, essentially, hold the country to ransom just because they want to continue shooting protected species? Like I mentioned earlier, I am absolutely fine with the hunting of turtle doves and quail because I understand wholeheartedly the issue of practicing an age old tradition which should not be abolished on the basis of an EU law. However it is common knowledge that hunters are afraid of EU interference since they cannot shoot their precious ‘trophy’ species which are endangered. We get hundreds of reports of kestrels, honey buzzards, flamingos, ospreys, hawks, eagles and so many more, all protected but gunned down. Are we going to continue having governments living with their heads in the ground and ignoring these incidents?

Is the obsession justified?

As far as I am concerned, if we will welcome this delizzju, why not open Pandora’s Box and allow all other delizzji to be practiced under derogations? Why not give free range to harpooning, unmonitored diving, off-roading, camping, barbequing, animal/plant collectors and those people who have the delizzju of putting protected thyme twigs (Sagħtar) in their Christmas cribs?

A handmade Maltese crib. in 1932, a law was passed to stop the gathering of thyme bushes, which were used in cribs (NOT in the one pictured above) since their twisted wooden stems resemble miniature olive trees. Why not find a derogation somewhere and allow this delizzju to persist? I’m sorry crib people, but you do not amount to many votes! (Photo credit: ChristSim)

This is why I believe that hunting has been relegated to a political issue, since these hobbies do not carry much voting strength. The track record for this is not in the favour of an alternative reason. While I am confident that there are several hunters in Malta that love and respect nature and actually follow the law, these individuals are being mislabeled as a result of a couple of rogue hunters. The FKNK really needs to step up and handle these people, which shouldn’t be such an issue in a country so small with limited hunting grounds. This begs another question, is the FKNK willing to point out its own people?

We need to grow up. The government, of any party, needs to grow a pair and lay down rules and punish offenders. Having the current government “committed to honouring what was agreed in a joint statement before the general election” (Times of Malta, 25th March 2013) is irresponsible. We need to see this agreement, and we need to understand what is being said behind closed doors. If this government has advocated for a more transparent and mature approach to politics, this is the perfect occasion to step up.

I hope that the new Maltese Minster for the Environment keeps his commitment towards enforcement during this spring hunting period. I will pick up this issue again after the end of the spring hunting season, which hopefully will not see me posting a list of all the shot protected species.

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