Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Can the EU Halt Spring Hunting in Malta?

ach spring, millions of migrant birds overfly the seven-island archipelago of Malta en route from Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe. As they pass, Maltese hunters -- some licensed, some not -- unleash variably discriminant bursts of bird shot into their ranks, bagging a variety of species, some (by local standards) legal, many others not. At the same time, throngs of conservationists (some local, some imported) pour over the islands and present every bloodied, illegal bird and ex-bird they can find -- some shot, others likely not -- to the numerous and accommodating scribblers and photographers of the continental press assembled for the occasion.

Faced with a strong, organized and often pugnacious hunting lobby (site only partially in English) the government in Valletta has thus far dragged its feet in fully adopting EU restrictions on spring hunting (Malta acceded to the EU in 2004). By demonstrating a willingness to cast votes for members of parliament based solely on their stand on the issue of spring hunting, the hunters have managed to cow both Malta's major political parties into backing the current law, under which icensed hunters may still bag two vernal migrant species, Turtle Dove and Common Quail. This law will stand until at least this fall, when court hearings in Brussels that will end in a final decision on whether to exempt Malta from the Union's Birding Directive. The government argues that the EU-sanctioned hunting season, during autumn migration over the Mediterranean, leaves too few targets for its hunters. Unlike the northbound spring migrants that are forced by conditions aloft to funnel over Malta, Africa-bound fall birds are abetted by fairer weather and favorable winds that enable them to disperse widely over the Med, avoiding landfall and sprays of lead over the island chain. Precedent does not favor Valletta, though, as the EU Court of Justice torpedoed a similar Finnish defense in 2005 seeking a spring exemption for three duck species.

But this dispute over dove and quail is rapidly taking a backseat to the mounting evidence that many among the 12,000 estimated Maltese gun hunters have a grossly flexible taxonomy of "European Quail" and "Turtle Dove." Marsh Harrier, European Bee Eater, Purple Martin... all have been discovered wounded or killed by birdshot, despite the threat of heavy fines called for under new legislation Valletta enacted to protect all but the disputed species. But the 80 or so police and soldiers charged with enforcing these laws in Malta's 100 square miles of hunting preserve are outnumbered by hunters over 100:1 (they outnumber the entire Maltese Armed Forces by a factor of six-to-one!), and must try to keep tabs on organized and radio-equipped subjects bent on eluding them.

Even with the expected ruling from the Court of Justice, it looks pretty clear that some level of illicit spring hunting will continue in Malta, and that it will likely not be limited taxonomically. Likewise, fall hunting will increase, again with less than selective shooting. In the end it will come down to the EU's willingness to put real punitive force behind its policies. A willingness that has been notoriously absent in previous encounters with ballistic bad men.

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