Government decision to transfer public land to hunters occurs as Commission expresses ‘concern’ about season

As the government prepares to hand over a chunk of Malta’s sparse woodlands to hunters, a source at the European Commission has told The Shift that the Commission believes that Malta’s spring hunting season is in breach of EU law.

Yet legal action to shut down the annual hunt has to be taken in the Maltese courts.

The Commission has already raised its concerns with the Maltese government a year ago, but the situation has gotten worse this year, according to the source in the Environment Commissioner’s office.

Frustration has been mounting at the Commission in recent years over an increase in illegal hunting as well as lax application of the spring hunt derogation, something that is evident in a Birdlife video that catalogued widespread illegal hunting last spring.

Last spring’s illegalities in turn form part of a larger trend of an intensification of illegal hunting. In the past month alone, Birdlife has documented the worst spree of illegal hunting since 2013.

In another development that caused dismay is Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri pushing the idea of reopening finch trapping, banned by the European Court of Justice last year, under the cover of scientific research. Camilleri, himself a hunter, has had the hunting and trapping portfolio since June 2017.

The government is now preparing to hand over the formal management of Malta’s largest publicly-owned woodland, Il-Mizieb, as well as L-Ahrax, to the hunting federation FKNK.

Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg has said that the FKNK has been chosen to manage the woodland because they have been “doing a good job” – FKNK has informally managed the woodland for years, and largely controls access during hunting hours. Hunters have built a number of hunting hides without a permit at Mizieb.

FKNK’s management of Mizieb limits public access and results in illegally built hides sprawled across the woodlands.

Borg characterised the imminent agreement as a formality, saying that nothing will change, and the woodland will only be closed to the public during hunting hours.

In reference to spring hunting, the EU source said although the Commission is “monitoring” the situation, and “remains ready to take action whenever necessary,” the enforcement of EU law is the “primary responsibility of Member States and national courts.”

“The national courts,” the source said, “are the ‘common courts’ for upholding EU law and contribute effectively to enforcing EU law in individual cases.”

This point was emphasised by the European Court of Justice last year when it defined national courts as ‘European courts’ responsible for enforcement of EU law.

An EU law expert consulted by The Shift said: “It is not the nature of the EU Commission to take Member States to court over every instance of infringement. Moreover, the spring hunt in Malta is regulated by a legal notice, and hence that legal notice can only be challenged in a national court. I am surprised that Birdlife has not filed a lawsuit yet”.

He added that Birdlife could take a case to Malta’s lower constitutional court, and optionally request the court to send the case to the European Court of Justice under the preliminary reference procedure. That would invite the EU Commission to join the lawsuit.

Contacted by The Shift about this point, Birdlife President Mark Sultana said that aside from documenting illegal hunting, “we believe that we need to push for legal action even in local court”.

He explained that this is “not an easy task and rather expensive with no guarantees”.

He said: “We are seeking legal advice on whether our proof of blatant abuse of this derogation is enough for us to proceed with legal action.”

“The hunting derogation for quail is a pure smokescreen to allow hunters to hunt the Turtle Dove even though it is in a ‘vulnerable’ status, and the EU is trying to find ways to restore its population,” said Sultana.

Quail can be found in open grassy habitats, not in woodlands such as Mizieb, where Birdlife filmed several instances of illegal hunting on turtle doves last spring.

                           
                               
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