European court finds Malta guilty in bird-trapping case

Malta
A Linnet sits in a trapper’s cage. Photo by BirdLife Malta

This morning, the European Court of Justice delivered a blow to the practice of trapping and killing birds in the Mediterranean region when it found Malta guilty of infringing the European Birds Directive. The island nation allowed trapping of seven finch species to reopen in 2014, and by doing so it failed to fulfill its obligations under EU law, the court said.

The conservation group BirdLife Malta said “the verdict is clear and unequivocal, leaving no room for interpretation.” The court found Malta guilty on four main counts and dismissed all arguments presented by the Maltese government. BirdLife Malta summarized the government’s positions and the court’s findings:

  1. That there are no other satisfactory solutions: To the contrary, the Court ruled that Malta did not even consider any other alternatives before authorizing trapping and so failed to show that there was no other satisfactory solution.
  2. That trapping is carried out in small numbers: To the contrary, the Court concluded that the numbers captured in Malta do not constitute a sustainable practice in relation to the birds that migrate over Malta from Europe.
  3. That trapping in Malta falls within the concept of ‘judicious use’ and is selective: To the contrary, the Court noted that, in view that trapping in Malta is done with massive clap-nets, it is non-selective (captures not just finches but also other fauna) and neither does it allow the control of small numbers. In view of this the Court concluded that recreational trapping of birds cannot be considered as ‘judicious use’ of wild birds.
  4. That trapping is carried out under strict enforcement: To the contrary, the Court was not convinced with the enforcement efforts carried out by the Maltese authorities in regard of the control of finches caught and the system adopted by the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) to declare their catches. It noted that only 23% of trappers have been subject to individual checks, which is inadequate, and also added that evidence shows that trapping in Natura 2000 sites has been rather frequent.

In a press conference earlier today BirdLife Malta insisted that the government should never open the trapping season for finches again and should repeal the relevant framework law immediately. BirdLife Malta also said it’s “ready to assist government in implementing the verdict, providing advice based on scientific facts, conservation values and full implementation of the EU Birds Directive.”

With this decision, all the negative impacts of the practice of trapping should be eliminated, with the verdict effectively translating into a number of benefits for nature, according to BirdLife Malta. The first main positive impact will be that large swathes of land in the Maltese Islands that in past years were authorized for trapping by the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU), should become inactive, allowing hectares of cleared vegetation to recover. The majority of these trapping sites are on public land situated in Natura 2000 sites, which should be given special consideration due to their ecological importance. Huge swathes of garigue in these sites have been destroyed over the past years, to make way for nets set up for trapping purposes. The current estimate of trapping sites which are cleared every year for the sole use of trappers is equivalent to 43 football pitches. Once the trapping season is permanently closed, the police should also find it easier to enforce the law and stop those who occupy unregistered land to trap.

Another positive impact of the outcome of the verdict will be on other wildlife that end up in the thousands of trapping nets that are left in the countryside, apart from the birds themselves. With the end of trapping, nets will cease to be left unattended, meaning that non-target bird species, hedgehogs, and reptiles, will not enter the death traps.

Finally, today’s ruling will also have an impact on the illegal trade of finches to be used as live decoys to attract other finches during the open season. All this will be brought to an end since the demand for caged finches will cease to exist. Most of these consignments consisted of finches that were being illegally trapped in Italy and Sicily and smuggled every autumn into Malta to end up being sold in markets.

This verdict, which cannot be appealed, is binding and Malta is obliged to abide by its conclusions. Although Malta was ordered to pay all the court expenses related to the case, it will not incur any further fines if it abides by the ruling.

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