By Ian Packham
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think we had a hope in hell” says Stefan, of the referendum’s yes campaign. He was fighting for the right to maintain Malta’s traditional spring bird hunt against those who wanted to see it permanently abolished, writes Ian Packham. As a lawyer who enjoys shooting in his spare time, Stefan was all too aware of his side’s chances of succeeding. “Only 10,000 hunters need to vote yes - say 50,000 or 60,000 people if their wives and children vote the same way. That’s enough to sway a general election in a country as small as this - which is why the politicians take us seriously - but not a referendum when everyone else in the country is against you.”
For four months each autumn the EU’s smallest member state joins other European and North African countries in permitting the shooting of migratory birds as they flock south on their way to warmer winter feeding grounds across central and southern Africa.
From the beginning of September to the end of January, licenced hunters on Malta and Gozo can shoot unlimited numbers of 41 species. With over 10,800 licenced hunters in 313 square kilometres of land, Malta is one of the most densely hunted regions anywhere in the world, with the possibility of 34 hunters per square kilometre, compared to 2.5 in neighbouring Italy.
It is not the autumn hunt, however, but the shorter spring hunt that has become increasingly controversial over recent years. The latter lasts a maximum of 20 days and, unlike the autumn hunt, is limited to just two bird species, the common quail (Corturnix corturnix) and turtle dove (Streptopelia tutur).
“The issue for us is always going to be about spring hunting” says Steve Micklewright, executive director of Birdlife Malta, one of 14 environmental groups that formed the Coalition to Abolish Spring Hunting (CASH), under whose aegis the no campaign was fought. “The science says that the shooting of birds in autumn is less of a problem than shooting of birds in spring and this referendum was about conservation.”
Survival of the quickest
Spring hunting is known to target the strongest birds, those animals that have survived the winter and have the best chance of successfully rearing healthy chicks after returning to their UK and European breeding grounds. This has been a concern not just for Birdlife Malta and its coalition partners on the islands, but also the European Parliament, which was so troubled by falling bird numbers that it legislated the Birds Directive in 1979.
The Directive explicitly bans the hunting of breeding and nesting birds, thereby prohibiting the hunting of birds returning to Europe from Africa during the spring. Since joining the EU in 2004 successive Maltese governments have utilised a derogation, or limited legal exemption, to allow the spring hunt to continue, on the grounds that the two species in question only visit the islands at this time.
The derogation permits the shooting of no more than 5,000 quail and 11,000 turtle dove during the narrow spring window, a period that Maltese hunters have always considered their main hunting season. “It’s not the 16,000 birds; it’s the principle of giving [us] that opportunity we’ve always had, and have always considered as our main hunting season in a limited and controlled way” says Mark Mifsud Bonnici, president of St Hubert’s Hunters’ Association, a union whose members make up ten% of licenced hunters.
Evidence suggests the Directive has had a positive effect in stabilising bird numbers across the the EU. A 2007 study published in the journal Science reported that bird species named as protected by the Directive demonstrated a higher population trend than non-protected species within the EU. CASH argue that the legislation’s success is eroded by Malta’s derogation and highlight the fact that, despite the Directive, numbers of both quail and turtle dove remain significantly lower than in previous decades.
In the UK, quail numbers have fallen 74% since 1980, and 95% since 1970, although habitat loss and industrial pollution, as well as hunting are believed to have had a significant impact. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) place the species on its amber list of birds with unfavourable conservation status but recovering numbers.
Turtle dove have fared no better. Numbers have declined by 90% in the UK since the 1970s, and they have recently been added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Conservationists argue that the spring hunt gives unlicensed hunters the opportunity to target other, protected, species. Thirty-eight species are known to have been targeted illegally between 2010 and 2015. It was one such instance, when a number of protected birds including Europe’s most threatened raptor, the pallid harrier (Circus macrourus), were found shot that led to the creation of the coalition.
While the coalition saw the push to abolish the spring hunt in simple conservation terms, hunters viewed it in emotively, believing it another attack on a tradition that dates back centuries. Many hunters view their right to hunt in spring as a cultural right that should be protected, akin to arguments surrounding bull fighting in Spain or fox hunting in Britain. They complain that much of the anti-hunt rhetoric comes from conservationists parachuted in from northern Europe who do not understand hunt’s cultural significance or historic relevance.
“There are people who want to harm hunting, and what do they promote? Not the bit that we hunt legally; it’s the bit that is hunted illegally that is being promoted” says Mark at his home in Naxxar. “My grandfather hunted. My great grandfather hunted. That gun hanging there is one of my ancestor’s guns, and that dates back to 1600 and something. It is a way of life. That’s how it should be seen.”
“We depended on migratory birds for nutrition back then” says Aldo Azzopardi, who has dedicated the best part of his life to researching hunting on the islands and founded St. Hubert’s Hunters’ Association. From his prodigious notes he pulls out a map of Malta drawn to depict the key moments of the Ottoman Great Siege in 1565. Bird-trapping nets are shown lining the western cliffs around the modern-day village of Dingli, an area still popular with hunters targeting the birds as they arrive after crossing the southern Mediterranean.
Now 84, Aldo has seen a great many changes over the years. “Hunting is not fun anymore with all the regulations we had to endure, even before this whole referendum racket”, he says. Each licensed hunter is only permitted to shoot two birds per day, and four over the entire season, up to the national quota of 5,000 quail and 11,000 turtle dove. Each kill must be reported in real time by text message or telephone call before the hunting area is left. Breaking these conditions can result not only in a licence being permanently revoked but an automatic €5,000 fine and up to one year’s imprisonment.
Ninety-five enforcement officers and two drones were assigned to the countryside during the peak period of migration during the 2014 autumn hunt. Almost 14,000 site inspections and 5,000 spot-checks were carried out, from which 106 legal transgressions were recorded, a fall from 391 two years before. The majority related to minor breaches to licence conditions.
The way the campaign was brought about - only the seventh referendum in 145 years - incites the ire of just about every hunter on the island. It was made possible by the introduction of the Referenda Act in 1998, which automatically forces a plebiscite if 10% of the electorate, currently 33,000 people, become signatories to a petition. This was the first time the act was exploited, making it a risky strategy for the coalition.
CASH decided to approach the spring hunt in this way after they found other more usual avenues, such as calls for greater government or EU oversight unanswered. “The government is part of the problem” says Steve Micklewright. “Opinion polls had shown for a number of years that the tide of public opinion had changed and that the vast majority of the people of Malta opposed spring hunting. We felt there is this law that allows laws to be got rid of that people aren’t happy with. Maybe it was something we should try to do, and put our faith in the people.”
Although almost 43,000 registered voters signed, Mark Mifsud Bonnici remains unconvinced by the process. “I’m not at all surprised that 40,000 people in Malta are against spring hunting”, he says. “I mean, probably many more than that are against hunting. The scary thing is that if you have a lobby which is large enough to collect 33,000 signatures, is that lobby going to start ruling which law is allowed and which isn’t? The benchmark is very low.”
Stefan agrees. “I voted yes not only because I enjoy hunting but because this is a fascist referendum. I am for keeping the derogation on principle. What’s to stop a referendum to reverse the recent rights given to gay people to marry and adopt children for instance? I’m sure there are a lot of people here – in a country where 92% of people consider themselves Roman Catholic – who do not support that.”
Polling stations saw a steady stream of people voting, despite much of the larger electorate struggling to become passionate about the derogation’s continued existence but with little impetus to vote against it. “What do I care about whether the hunters can shoot some stupid bird or not?” says Lorraine, one of Stefan’s co-workers. For others, it is clear the coalition’s arguments have struck a chord. “It becomes impossible to go out in the countryside because of the hunters’ asserts Robert, Lorraine’s brother. “They shout, and tell us to get of their land. It’s not their land; it’s our land.”
Turnout was recorded at 75%, higher than the previous government-initiated referendum on the legalisation of divorce, an equally emotive issue in a country with Catholicism enshrined as the state religion in the first article of its constitution.
After months of campaigning, only 2,220 votes separated the yes and no camps. When 50.4% of the vote was found in favour the hunt, its campaigners declared victory. An infamous unofficial motto of the hunters became true: ‘on Saturday we vote yes, on Sunday we celebrate victory, and on Monday we go shooting.’
On the first day of the spring hunt plenty of shots could be heard echoing through the morning around the Dwejra lines, another favoured hunters’ location, but no one was willing to speak about their narrowest of victories. Some hunters feel they have been unfairly portrayed by a critical international media both during the referendum campaign and over preceding years, and are wary of anyone carrying a notebook. The Maltese Federation for Hunting and Conservation, the largest hunters’ union, refuse point blank to speak to the media beyond written press releases.
A lack of trust, entrenched views, and a history of verbal and physical attacks makes the post-referendum climate, in which a second hunting season is already underway, all the more complex. It is difficult to see how both viewpoints can be accommodated. “Some of our staff have been shot in the face, some of our staff had their houses and their cars burnt down” says Steve Micklewright. “I hate to say all the things we’ve been called,” responds Mark Mifsud Bonnici. “I’ve been insulted. I’ve been ridiculed, labelled a Neanderthal, a troglodyte, a beast, an animal; scum.” He has even been likened to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.
However, British-born Steve believes the Maltese’s view of nature and their countryside has been changed for the better by this referendum despite its narrow failure. “As a complete outsider I can see how the referendum was a potential turning point about the relationship between Maltese society and its environment and wildlife. The referendum was about conservation, but also about how people think about nature and how nature is treated. There will still be illegal killing of birds so our next job is to continue to work on the illegal killing of protected species”.
That is perhaps where both sides can find common ground. “I’m not against protection of birds” says Mark. “Far from it. We don’t shoot birds that are protected. There are a few people that do, and they should be our common enemy. That should be where we unite”.
Ian Packham is an adventurer, award-winning travel writer and speaker. He revels in making his own way to off-beat and unexpected destinations. To find out more about Ian, his adventures and writing visit www.encircleafrica.org.
Photographs used under a Creative Commons licence [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)].