Make Malta Abide by European Bird Law, Groups Demand

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 22, 2005 (ENS) - BirdLife International and BirdLife Malta made a formal complaint to the European Commission this week about the failure of the Maltese government to regulate bird hunting and trapping on the island nation. Malta became a member of the European Union in May of 2004 and is supposed to harmonize its laws with EU law.

Every year thousands of migrating birds are shot illegally in Malta, an island nation in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Italy totalling 316 square kilometers (122 square miles).

The bird conservation groups say they have attempted to persuade the Maltese government to halt the killing, without result.

"BirdLife Malta and BirdLife International are committed to ensure a safe future for birds in Europe, and have tried for many years to solve the problems in Malta through dialogue and cooperation with the Maltese government," said Clairie Papazoglou, head of BirdLife’s Brussels office.


The threatened Purple heron, Ardea purpurea, still found on the Maltese islands, was photographed here in Poland. (Photo courtesy Pawel Malczyk)
"However, these efforts have proven to be rather fruitless, so the time has come now for the European Commission to take its responsibility as guardian of the EU's laws, and to ensure with quick and decisive legal action against Malta that next spring European birds can pass safely over the Maltese Islands," Papazoglou said.

Malta has more than 12,500 hunters and 3,500 trappers within a population of less than 400,000. Up to three million birds are shot or trapped each year, according to figures issued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has lobbied the EU to keep Maltese birds alive, although it is not a party to the formal complaint.

As a result of uncontrolled shooting, the number of species breeding in Malta has declined from 32 in 1916 to about 16 today.

Hunters are illegally killing species such as Western marsh-harrier, Circus aeruginosus, the European honey-buzzard, Pernis apivorus, the Black-winged stilt, Himantopus himantopus, and the threatened Purple heron, Ardea purpurea, say the bird conservationists.

Each year an estimated 100,000 European turtle doves, Streptopelia turtur, and other species with declining populations in Europe are shot during their spring migration, the conservation groups said.

The shooting is in conformity with Maltese national laws, but in violation of European law, to which all EU member states must conform.

BirdLife asked the EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas to investigate and take the appropriate steps to ensure that Malta, as an EU member state, complies with the existing binding EU legislation.

The complaint focuses on Malta’s failure to integrate and then implement the European Birds Directive’s provisions on hunting and trapping into national laws.

As well as breaching the Birds Directive by allowing the hunting of turtle doves and common quail, Coturnix coturnix, in spring, several other Maltese laws are not in line with the EU Birds Directive.


The common quail is trapped with nets on the Maltese islands. (Photo by Alejandro Torés Sánchez courtesy BirdLife International)
For example, Malta also allows the hunting at sea of 12 species of waterfowl during their spring migration, as well as the trapping of turtle doves, quail, song thrush, Turdus philomelos, and Eurasian golden-plover, Pluvialis apricaria, with nets.

"Hunting birds during their return migration to the breeding grounds is explicitly forbidden by the Birds Directive," said Joseph Mangion, president of BirdLife Malta.

"In addition," Mangion said, "this law makes it nearly impossible to control the widespread illegal hunting of many other threatened birds during this time of the year."

When entering the EU, Malta was granted a period of transition to phase out the trapping of finches, which is normally forbidden in all member states, by 2008.

But BirdLife says the Maltese government has not respected the conditions of this agreement, particularly regarding the timing of the trapping and the timetable for phasing it out.

If the Commission doesn’t take decisive action against Malta on hunting," Papazoglou said, "it will set a dangerous precedent for other countries in the EU, and sign a death warrant for thousands of migratory birds."