Bird Life Malta CEO speaks out about why it never pre­sented mo­tion for hunt­ing sea­son clo­sure

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - NEWS - He­lena Grech

A mo­tion to dis­cuss clos­ing the hunt­ing sea­son has not been pre­sented by BirdLife Malta to the Or­nis Com­mit­tee due to the com­mit­tee’s ‘de­sign’, re­sult­ing in the Prime Min­is­ter hav­ing a ‘clean sheet’ to keep it open de­spite the mount­ing num­ber of il­le­gal­i­ties.

“If we were to present this mo­tion, and it did not go through, we would have given the Prime Min­is­ter a clean sheet – all the rights to say that he can­not close it be­cause he ac­tu­ally has been ad­vised not to,” says BirdLife CEO Mark Sul­tana.

A law was passed in Au­gust 2015 giv­ing the Or­nis Com­mit­tee, a body which over­sees the con­ser­va­tion of wild birds, the power to rec­om­mend clo­sure of the hunt­ing sea­son. The com­mit­tee’s vot­ing pow­ers con­sist of one vote for BirdLife, one vote for the hunt­ing lobby FKNK, one vote each for the three ex­perts ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ment, while one cast­ing vote is granted to the chair­man, Den­nis Mon­te­bello, if nec­es­sary.

So far this sea­son, there have been 26 known cases of pro­tected birds be­ing shot. Last Thurs­day evening, an in­jured Euro­pean Honey Buz­zard was found by two students at St Ed­ward’s Col­lege. It had been shot and is now be­ing cared for and re­ha­bil­i­tated.

In April 2015, shortly af­ter the ref­er­en­dum on spring hunt­ing nar­rowly re­sulted in favour of the hunt­ing lobby, a sim­i­lar in­ci­dent oc­curred with a pro­tected bird be­ing shot down over the same school, prompt­ing Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Muscat to close the spring hunt­ing sea­son early.

Some con­tro­versy arose when this news­pa­per dis­cov­ered that the Or­nis Com­mit­tee board had taken longer than ex­pected to be re­formed fol­low­ing the 3 June snap elec­tion. Due to this de­lay, the com­mit­tee did not meet before the com­mence­ment of the au­tumn hunt­ing sea­son as it nor­mally does to share con­cerns, in­for­ma­tion about hot-spots and up­dates on en­force­ment prac­tices.

When the meet­ing fi­nally took place some weeks into the au­tumn hunt­ing sea­son, to­wards the end of Septem­ber, a gov­ern­ment spokesper­son as well as the com­mit­tee’s sec­re­tary con­firmed that the is­sue of dis­cussing a rec­om­men­da­tion for the clo­sure of the hunt­ing sea­son was not raised.

While it is the gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed chair­man of the Or­nis Com­mit­tee who sets the agenda, BirdLife Malta, as a sit­ting mem­ber of the com­mit­tee, is well within its rights to present a mo­tion to have this is­sue placed on the agenda and dis­cussed.

At a press con­fer­ence last Fri­day at St Ed­ward’s Col­lege, where the dis­cov­ery of the in­jured honey buz­zard was de­scribed by the two students who res­cued it, the Birdlife CEO de­scribed how, com­par­ing the first five weeks of the au­tumn hunt­ing sea­son last year and this, in 2016 there had been five known cases com­pared with 26 this year.

In an in­ter­view with this news­room, Sul­tana de­scribed how

even the fact that the gov­ern­ment has dis­cussed a re­duc­tion in fines for hunters who break the law has re­sulted in a spike in the num­ber of known hunt­ing il­le­gal­i­ties.

The Prime Min­is­ter made head­lines when he said that the prerog­a­tive is on the Or­nis Com­mit­tee to rec­om­mend the sea­son’s clo­sure, and that the gov­ern­ment would se­ri­ously con­sider its rec­om­men­da­tion. This was cat­e­gor­i­cally re­futed by anti-hunt­ing lob­by­ists and BirdLife Malta it­self, con­tend­ing that the law clearly states that the Prime Min­is­ter can uni­lat­er­ally close the sea­son with or with­out an Or­nis Com­mit­tee rec­om­men­da­tion.

Through­out all this, The Malta In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day has asked Sul­tana why he does not use his power on the Com­mit­tee to present a mo­tion for the sea­son’s clo­sure, es­pe­cially in the light of the mount­ing num­ber of il­le­gal­i­ties.

He replied: “Be­cause of the way the Or­nis Com­mit­tee is de­signed, it’s very dif­fi­cult for some­thing which we [BirdLife] want, some­thing that goes against the po­lit­i­cal will, to ac­tu­ally be ac­cepted.

“You have the FKNK who will vote against clo­sure, then you have an­other three votes which are in­de­pen­dent but nor­mally very much in­clined to vote in favour of what the gov­ern­ment is say­ing. So it is very dif­fi­cult for us to put it on the agenda.

“If we were to present this mo­tion, and it does not go through, we would have given the Prime Min­is­ter a clean sheet, all the right to say that he can­not close it be­cause he ac­tu­ally has been ad­vised not to.

“What we are say­ing is that the Prime Min­is­ter has the right to close the hunt­ing sea­son, he has the re­spon­si­bil­ity to close it and, for the sake of con­sis­tency, es­pe­cially af­ter to­day, he should close it.”

The au­tumn hunt­ing sea­son is from 1 Septem­ber to 31 Jan­uary. So far, the pro­tected birds that have been il­le­gally shot, in chrono­log­i­cal or­der and in what lo­ca­tion, are as fol­lows:

Euro­pean Bee-eater – Ghaxaq; Euro­pean Bee-eater – Dwe­jra, Malta; Grey Heron – De La Salle Col­lege, Vit­to­riosa; Night Heron – Mgarr ix-Xini; Euro­pean BeeEater – Bidni, Marsas­cala; Marsh Har­rier – Mgarr; Com­mon Kestrel – Sig­giewi; Euro­pean Honey Buz­zard – Gozo; Euro­pean Honey Buz­zard – Gir­genti; Greater Flamingo – Hal-Far; Greater Flamingo – Marsas­cala; Grey Heron – Ma­noel Is­land; Grey Heron – Xgha­jra, Nwadar Park; Euro­pean Honey Buz­zard – Bus­kett; Pur­ple Heron – Ma­noel Is­land; Com­mon Kestrel – Mtarfa; Night­jar – Birzeb­buga; Grey Heron – Zur­rieq; Eurasian Hobby – Fawwara; Yel­low­legged Gull – Qba­j­jar, Gozo; Eurasian Hobby – Dwe­jra, Malta; Eurasian Spar­row hawk – Bid­nija; Rey Heron – Zab­bar; Euro­pean Honey Buz­zard – St Ed­ward’s Col­lege, Vit­to­riosa; Greater Flamingo – Hal-Far­rug; Eurasian Hobby – lo­ca­tion un­known.

Out of the 26 re­trieved pro­tected birds that were il­le­gally shot, just two were re­trieved by the po­lice them­selves. Do date, not a sin­gle sus­pect has been ar­raigned in court re­gard­ing the above in­ci­dents.

BirdLife CEO Mark Sul­tana, at a press con­fer­ence last Fri­day at St Ed­ward’s Col­lege

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