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Malta in about-turn on hunting laws

Pressure tells? but the war is not quite won yet

Europe's worst offenders on illegal bird hunting and trapping are finally showing signs of coming into line with EU bird protection laws.

Each year thousands of migrating birds are shot illegally in Malta, including such species as Western Marsh-harrier Circus aeruginosus, European Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus, Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus and Purple Heron Ardea purpurea.

But to make things worse, an estimated 100,000 European Turtle-doves Streptopelia turtur and other species with declining populations in Europe are shot in total conformity with Malta's national laws, mostly as they pass through the island on their spring migration to northern Europe from Africa.

In July 2005 BirdLife International and BirdLife Malta, lodged a formal complaint with the EU Commission about the failure of the Maltese Government to adequately transpose the EU Birds Directive (79/409/EEC) in relation to this rampant bird hunting and trapping. Proact and others also brought considerable pressure to bear.

As a result of this, the European Commission looked set to start a formal infringement procedure against Malta. However, with no prior warning, the Maltese Government introduced a last minute change of its national laws to strengthen bird conservation on the island, bringing it more into line with the rest of the European Union."After many years of hard work by BirdLife, other conservation organisations and EU Institutions, Malta has finally accepted that it has been breaching European legislation since entering the EU two years ago," commented Konstantin Kreiser from BirdLife International's Brussels office. "The law changes came literally overnight. And although it is obvious that this ‘understanding’ only happened after the threat of being taken to the European Court became immediate, we now hope to see considerable progress for bird conservation within Malta."

Although a detailed assessment of the new provisions still needs to be undertaken, it appears as if the Maltese hunting seasons for several bird species will be shortened, so that hunting no longer takes place during spring migration and the breeding season. Trapping of a number of species will now be outlawed by Maltese law, and the use of speed boats to hunt birds (such as ducks) at sea will also be made illegal.Although the trapping of seven species of finch may go on until 2008 under certain conditions, any trapping in spring will be illegal from now on. Despite these developments, Malta is still claiming to use exemptions ('derogations') to enable the hunting of migratory European Turtle-doves and Common Quail Coturnix coturnix between March and May to continue.

Currently Malta argues that these birds have to be hunted then, because it is the only time they occur on the island. However, this is not the case, as the two species also pass back through Malta on their return Autumn migration. As a result, BirdLife urges the European Commission not to approve this derogation, as the conditions of the EU Birds Directive are not met.

The Maltese Government also say that the new laws do not apply to the current 2006 spring hunting season – only coming into force at the end of May, by which time tens of thousands more birds will have been killed. And although the law will tighten up hunting regulations, it remains to be seen what the Maltese Government will do to tackle the massive amount of illegal hunting that takes place.

"Although this move by the Maltese Government is a step in the right direction, we hope that it is not just a token gesture, and that the new hunting law is properly enforced to ensure that Malta ceases to be the graveyard of so many of Europe's migratory birds," added Konstantin Kreiser.

4th July 2014