When I was young I used to go and visit my old aunt and uncle. They lived in a rambling two terraced house in Tarxien. One of the dark rooms upstairs (for the rooms were always shuttered and closed) held a wondrous sight for a 10 year old boy. There, in a glass showcase were any number of stuffed birds: egrets, herons, hoopoes, ducks…. their beautiful plumage in purples, greens and reds and staring back at me with their glass eyes. This was nature in all its splendour. I resolved then that I too would be a hunter and have my own glass showcase, which would of course be bigger and even more wondrous.
Later, when I was seventeen, I was out in the desert with a Libyan friend of mine. We were crashing around in an old Datsun when his father saw a group of birds (for some reason these birds were walking). He lowered the window and blasted them with his shotgun. In a palm filled oasis, Fawzi and I sought to imitate him by shooting pigeons with an air-gun. These have been my two earliest connections with hunting and I can well understand the excitement it holds, being close to nature, sitting at dawn in the countryside waiting for prey.
However, the thrill, so to speak, has been replaced with sadness. In Malta we do not see the birds of my childhood in the wild anymore. All too occasionally you may see a heron and I once saw a hoopoe, but generally all one sees is the ever faithful sparrow. Little birdsong is heard in the Maltese skies today. I do have issues with killing animals or birds for pleasure and environmentally the issues are now very serious for Malta.
Apart from the decimation of what we would term our wildlife (apart from Paceville that is) there are the issues of hunters blocking countryside access and the impromptu creation of “roads” for access to the hides, the destruction of the garrigue for trappers’ nets and hides, as well as the wider problem of hunting protected species and those under threat of extinction. More recently in Lipari, the whole family was thrilled to see a number of birds of prey (I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what they were), soaring above the steep hillsides. A sight we could have, but sadly do not, in Malta.
The hunting issue has become very emotional in Malta. Din L-Art Helwa has always supported Bird Life in its efforts to control illegal hunting, to protect habitats and birds in general. It will continue to do so. We are proud to work alongside them in the Foresta 2000 project at Mellieha with the PARK Department of the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Environment. And we salute those brave individuals who stand up in the face of gross intimidation from the more radical and unscrupulous hunters and trappers.
The hunting issue also has an economic impact as it affects the tourism industry. Tourism which arguably contributes 40% of GDP has found itself in the firing line of potential visitors and lobbyists who are boycotting Malta because of hunting. Although unquantifiable, this is a potentially serious problem and is yet another argument as to why this so-called sport should be regulated further.
The Government has now found itself in a quandary. It is basically between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand it has the full weight of the EU, calling for an end to trapping and a restricted open season. This is in tune with the vast majority of people on these islands. On the other hand there is a small, but vociferous, minority of hunters and trappers who are threatening to change their votes if the open season is restricted. In a country where the Government is on a knife-edge majority, these threats are taken seriously.
It has tried to hedge its bets by giving in on the issue of spring hunting of two species within specific dates, forbidding finch trapping, and increasing the penalties for illegal hunting. This has not been the most successful of tactics and has to an extent antagonized all. I do have sympathy with the approach, however, hunting needs to be phased out by education, enforcement and the channeling of hunters’ interests into conservation. Overnight legislation will result in confrontation, widespread illegal activity and, as usual, lack of enforcement.
But in the end, the Government will have to take a stand, and I hope it is in favour of the environment. The Government must act for the environment as it has done when dealing with the fiscal deficit; firmly and in the common good. People will recognize this and take the medicine. It is kowtowing to particular interest groups, be they hunters or speculators, which gives a feeling of iniquity, and which will ultimately damage those who play this game. Let the birds of prey, the barn owls, the migratory birds, return.
Martin Galea is Executive President of Din l-Art Helwa