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Migratory Birds (Malta)

Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2014

It is a privilege, Mrs Main, to serve under your chairmanship. Knowing your record on these matters, I am sure you will be interested in the debate, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting it. I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to voice the concerns of many thousands of people in this country and further afield about the mindless slaughter of migrant birds in Malta.

This year marks the 50th year that I have been a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I joined as a very young boy, and throughout those years, I have been acutely aware of the existence in the Mediterranean area of a culture of killing migrant birds of all types. I regret to say that one of the worst culprits has been Malta, and as a result, I have never had the pleasure of visiting that island. That is a real pity, because I have an otherwise positive image of a courageous George Cross island that is steeped in history. The Maltese people that I have met have always been friendly and incredibly pleasant.

Like many people who have an interest in wildlife—I have to admit that in my case it is a passion—I have been riveted recently by the daily video blogs produced by the well known broadcaster Chris Packham and a dedicated team of volunteers. They were helped by a courageous group from BirdLife International and BirdLife Malta. I say courageous, because they faced personal intimidation, questioning from the Maltese authorities and even physical danger. Men with firearms are not confronted lightly.

Some of those brave Maltese who have been fighting against this illegal hunting over the years have put their lives on the line, but what has that got to do with us in the UK? Nature does not respect national boundaries, so co-ordinated international action is essential if we are to protect our wild bird species for future generations. The EU’s birds directive and habitats directive are the cornerstones of conservation action across Europe and provide a policy framework that has helped to improve the status and prospects of wild birds across Europe.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to Westminster Hall for discussion. It is important to get a balance, though. I know his point of view, and he referred to the conservation groups that have catalogued evidence, but some shooting organisations have evidence as well. When it comes to getting the balance and the full picture, it is important to contact the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance. They have direct contact with those bodies in Malta.

One thing that I have found is that legitimate shooting interests in this country and elsewhere in Europe regard what goes on in Malta as not part of their sport. I will go on to say more on that. I am in no way anti-shooting, whether in the UK or elsewhere, if it is legitimate.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with many of my constituents, who do not understand why this barbaric practice is still going on in the 21st century?

I know that my hon. Friend and his constituents have a keen interest in this issue. He is absolutely right that there is no place for the practice in the 21st century.

Following on from that point, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that from 1 April this year, the penalties for illegal shooting in Malta were multiplied by 10? I welcome that. I lived in Malta and I fully understand that there is still a hunting party out there, which needs bringing to heel. Secondly, just yesterday—

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and pleased to hear about the increased penalties, but the point is that penalties have to be enforced. Earlier, he was telling me that the Maltese are taking action. If that is so, that is welcome news and I wait to see what happens.

Yesterday’s Malta Independent reported the arrest of four people in Naxxar following the shooting of a flamingo last year. That is good news.

That is good news. We would all welcome those arrests, which we want to see happening more often. Malta holds the only derogation for recreational spring hunting of turtle doves and quail, and we all know that that provides a smokescreen for illegal hunting. The UK Government and the European Commission must insist that Malta abides by the spirit, as well as the letter, of the EU’s birds directive and habitats directive and puts an end to spring hunting for good.

Malta sits on the central Mediterranean bird migration flyway between Europe and Africa. Every spring and autumn, large numbers of birds fly over the islands on their migration between the two continents. Many are shot in Malta. Spring hunting is significantly more damaging than autumn hunting, as it reduces the numbers of birds returning to breed. That is self-evident.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Is he willing to emphasise how much this is a British issue? British birds are migrating over these routes. Does he have any estimates for the effect that Maltese shooting has had on British bird numbers over the years?

Many of the birds are not in fact coming to Britain, although some are. For cuckoos in particular, we now know more about their migration, and we know that they are British birds. Regardless of whether the birds are British or not, they are European. On that point, I am a European.

An open season runs from 1 September to 31 January, during which 41 species of bird can be legally hunted in unlimited numbers, but the trouble is that there is a mix of legal and illegal hunting. Spring hunting is not usually legal in the European Union. Article 7.4 of the birds directive obliges member states to ban hunting of species to which hunting regulations apply during their period of reproduction or during their return to rearing grounds. Malta is the only country in the EU with a derogation from the directive. The directive states that derogations made be made

“where there is no other satisfactory solution…to permit, under strictly supervised conditions and on a selective basis, the capture, keeping or other judicious use of certain birds in small numbers.”

In 2009, no spring hunting of quail and turtle doves was permitted for the first time ever due to an injunction from the European Court of Justice, which ruled that too many birds were being killed. It followed a complaint from BirdLife Malta to the European Commission in 2005 and a petition to the Maltese Prime Minister with 115,000 signatures from RSPB members. In 2010, however, spring hunting was reopened despite an ECJ ruling that by allowing spring hunting in the 2004 to 2007 period, Malta had failed to comply with the conditions for derogation.

Hunting in Malta currently breaches many if not all of the conditions for derogation. The spring hunting derogation specifies that a maximum of 16,000 birds can be killed, but each licensed hunter is allowed to kill four birds in total of turtle dove and/or quail, so more than 40,000 turtle dove and quail could be shot by licensed hunters. Turtle doves are in serious decline in western Europe, and this hunting is taking out the remaining populations. An agreement between the new Maltese Government, elected in 2013, and the FKNK, Malta’s largest hunting organisation, allows every registered hunter to obtain a spring hunting licence, meaning that more 10,000 hunters are supposed to hunt just 16,000 birds. At the same time, the spring season has been extended.

The current derogation framework is frequently abused by the hunting community in Malta. Consecutive spring hunting reports from BirdLife Malta show that the number of birds shot is much higher than allowable bag limits set by the Maltese Government. The derogation framework allows two species to be hunted, but more than 19 species were observed to have been shot or were brought into the BirdLife Malta office by volunteers last year. The same is true this year, as we saw in the video blogs. Many of the species targeted every spring hunting season are threatened in Europe, including Montagu’s, marsh and pallid harriers, common cuckoos and nightjars. One of most heart-rending scenes in the video blogs was the euthanising of a Montagu’s harrier that had been shot.

It has become increasingly difficult to gather evidence and numbers as poachers become more sophisticated in their illegal activity, including using illegal electronic lures and even hunting birds on the ground at night. It should not be imagined that it is a fair contest of man and rifle against his quarry; this is slaughter, pure and simple. Some on the island claim that the activity is traditional. Indeed, it was, but there is no place for such traditions in the 21st century. Bear baiting and cock fighting were once traditions in this country, but I do not think that anyone is arguing for their return.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Coming from Portsmouth, I understand well the connection that Britain has with Malta. As well as our shared naval history, we are the guardians of each other’s wildlife. In my experience, that is well understood not only by the people of Portsmouth, but also by the people of Valetta, which is why I find this lax attitude so difficult to understand.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. I regret this problem with a few people in Malta, because the ties between our two countries are immense.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the case he makes. In congratulating the movement in Malta and the Government’s approach, is he not shocked that Chris Packham was detained by the police for highlighting the abuses going on in the country?

I do not know the exact situation, but it seems on the surface that that was not the best move.

In March, 33 MEPs from 10 member states wrote to Environment Commissioner Potocnik saying that

“the Maltese government has sought to justify the derogation through inaccurate reports and unreliable and even fictional data.”

Will the Government call on Janez Potocnik, the EU Environment Commissioner, to ensure that the directive is properly enforced in Malta?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the situation smacks of the European Commission having lost the will to address the problem?

I am not entirely sure. All I know is that the European Commissioner’s time is running out and it is not the best time to discuss such matters, so I think that we will return to them in a couple of months.

The main law that defends our shared wildlife is the EU birds directive, but a new environmental inspections directive is also under consideration. However, we cannot be too cocky. We must get our own house in order, as the illegal persecution of birds still happens in this country, including the recent killing of some red kites in Ross-shire. We cannot lecture people unless we get our house in order—although I stress that I am not trying to lecture the Maltese people.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, alongside the UK Government taking the matter up with the European Commission, it is also important to hold bilateral talks with Malta to see whether some agreement can be reached?

I like the idea, but this is a European thing. I do not want the Maltese to think that Britain is pushing them; other European countries, such as Holland and Germany, are thinking exactly the same. It just happens that we are in the UK Parliament today.

There is considerable public support in the UK for stronger action. In 2010, 230,000 people signed a petition calling on the Government to do more to end the illegal killing of our own birds of prey. With the publication of the England biodiversity strategy, the coalition Government committed themselves making it one of their priorities.

Returning to Malta, it is important to recognise that hunting is not a national pastime in Malta and that there is a majority in Malta who want the practice to stop. BirdLife Malta seeks to use the Referenda Act 1973 to force a national referendum to ban spring hunting permanently. It has collected 45,000 signatures so far, which is some 10% of the Maltese population, and we hope for a referendum in early 2015. If anybody wants to do something constructive, there is a fund to help the referendum campaign. I am sure that it can be found online and that all donations will be gratefully received.

When discussing hunters in Malta, we are talking about a group of fewer than 10,000 people who are damaging species that are precious to the public across Europe. In recent days, a young lady called Michela Spiteri wrote the following on the Times of Malta website:

“We want to be able to enjoy the little countryside we have unrestrainedly, without being subjected to the shooting sounds and the wrath of territorial hunters who, after all, have no business telling the rest of us where to get off. And above all, we are entitled to wash our hands of and not to want anything to do with the veritable bloodbath that this cruel and illegal exemption brings about.”

That is the spirit of the youth in Malta and that is what I want to encourage today.

In all other respects, I am sure that Malta is a great place for tourism. I believe strongly, as someone who used to lead birdwatching trips around the world, that if the slaughter was stopped, Malta would rapidly become a favourite destination for birdwatchers and their families at key migration periods, which would actually extend the tourist season. Like Chris Packham, for whom I have the strongest respect, and others, I am certainly not calling for a boycott—far from it. I want the Maltese people to know that we in the UK support the majority that want the cruel practice to end. I hope that the House will join me today in condemning bird killing in Malta and that the Minister will do everything possible to help bring it to an end by raising it with his European counterparts in appropriate forums in the European Union. I have been amazed by the reaction not only from the public, but also from colleagues across the House. This is a half-hour debate that traditionally involves a Member and the Minister, yet some Members have not been able intervene. There is a positive way forward and we must keep the topic in the public mind.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) on securing the debate and on bringing the subject to the attention of the House. He has a lifelong passion for such issues, being a member of the RSPB for some 50 years, as he said. Last time I debated with him in Westminster Hall, the subject was farmland birds, so I know that he is a long-standing campaigner. He is also in tune with the mood of many in the country.

Britain has always been a pioneer of conservation, and birds have always been at the forefront of this country’s passion for wildlife. Groups such as the RSPB are among those with the largest membership in the UK. As a result, wild birds have been afforded strong levels of protection in the UK since the introduction of the Protection of Birds Act 1954—a full 25 years before the EU birds directive made the protection of wild birds, in much the same manner, an obligation on all member states. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that my right hon. Friend, along with many others, was disturbed to see recent media coverage of the annual spring hunting season in Malta.

In reacting to such reports, it is important to bear in mind the distinctions between lawful hunting activity that the EU birds directive specifically permits member states to undertake, and the illegal hunting carried out by those acting outside the law. The directive provides a strong framework for the protection of all naturally occurring wild birds throughout the EU and requires each member state to take measures to ensure the protection, management and control of birds, their eggs, nests and habitats, and to maintain populations occurring within their range at levels that correspond to their particular ecological, scientific and cultural requirements. The directive, however, also lays down rules for the exploitation of such birds through hunting activity and permits the “judicious use” of wild birds for economic and recreational purposes.

Some species may be hunted for sport or food throughout the European Union, while certain others may be hunted only within specified territories. The birds directive is clear that any hunting activity must remain compatible with maintaining the populations of the species, and it contains safeguards to ensure that. The responsibility of individual member states and of the European Commission is to ensure the correct transposition of, and compliance with, EU directives. It is, however, a well known fact that the Commission has previously expressed concerns about the hunting of migratory birds in Malta. Permitting the spring hunting of turtle doves and quail has been the subject of particular Commission scrutiny to ensure that it is compliant with the directive.

Together with other islands in the Mediterranean, such as Crete and Cyprus, the islands of Malta play a vital role for many migratory species of bird during their long flight between Africa and Europe. The EU directive recognised that it is important for the birds to receive particular protection in spring, so that they may breed and build up their populations from the low point in their natural annual cycles. Some evidence suggests, in particular for turtle doves, that the impact on populations of spring hunting can be up to eight times higher than the impact of autumn hunting.

In 2009, as a result of such concerns, the European Commission referred Malta to the European Court of Justice for permitting the hunting of turtle doves and quail during their spring migration. The Court ruled that, by permitting that activity between 2004 and 2007, the Maltese Government had failed to comply with the derogation conditions associated with hunting and, as such, had failed to fulfil their obligations under the directive. The Court, however, also recognised that Malta’s unique bio-geographical circumstances restricted hunting opportunities in autumn, and it therefore reaffirmed Malta’s right to permit limited hunting in spring through a derogation from the birds directive, subject to meeting the stringent parameters of article 9(1)(c) of that directive.

I apologise for stopping the Minister mid-flow. What particular bio-geographical factors make hunting more difficult in the autumn?

I am told that the doves migrate through Malta, rather than being resident there. That was a conclusion of the Court—that the situation could not be dealt with in other ways, which was why it upheld the right. That was its judgment.

In response to the 2010 judgment, the Maltese Government developed a new legal framework and introduced a number of changes to how they control the spring hunting of turtle doves and quail to ensure compliance with the directive. Measures include annual estimations of the populations of species; limits on the number of birds that may be shot during the hunt under the derogation; and an assessment of whether the populations are likely to suffer any detrimental effect.

Despite the changes, a number of organisations and individuals have continued to campaign against the spring hunting permitted by the Maltese Government. I understand the concerns expressed, but it is for the Maltese Government to investigate any alleged illegal hunting activity that might be taking place alongside their permitted hunting regime. We should also bear in mind, as a number of Members have pointed out, that the issue is an incredibly contentious one in Malta itself. It has been said that more than 10% of the population have signed a petition calling for a referendum—as my right hon. Friend pointed out, it already has up to 45,000 signatures and it is being considered.

Fortuitously, I was in Athens over the past few days, at an informal meeting of the European Council. Knowing that the debate was coming up, I had the opportunity to discuss the subject briefly with my opposite number, Roderick Galdes, on the margins of one of the meetings. In fairness, the Maltese Government believe that they have done a lot to tackle the illegal killing of doves, and they feel frustrated that that has not been recognised. He highlighted some of the steps that Malta has taken to strengthen enforcement. It now has the highest ratio of enforcement deployment possible per square kilometre of countryside anywhere in Europe. He also pointed out that Malta’s penalties and legal deterrents against bird-related crime are among the most severe in Europe. He stressed that there had been some 4,000 physical inspections. I am simply pointing out the argument made by the Maltese Government.

We are talking about the illegal hunting not only of turtle doves, or quail for that matter—far from it—but of other species, which is well documented. That is what does not seem to have been tackled.

Yes. I am simply reporting the argument of the Maltese Government. As I said, I took the opportunity to discuss the matter briefly with my opposite number. They feel that they are not given credit for the steps they have taken, which they argue have resulted in a very tight regime, with tough reporting requirements.

Where there is evidence to suggest that illegal hunting activity is occurring, the UK Government encourage all relevant authorities to ensure that sufficiently robust action is taken. As I have stated, compliance with the European Union directives, including any alleged failings, is a matter for the individual member states and for the European Commission. Representations have been made, for example by a number of MEPs in the European Parliament, and many organisations and members of the public may also express their concerns through their MEPs.

Finally, turning to the situation here, sadly a number of the UK’s migratory bird species have experienced population declines over recent decades. A range of factors are thought to have contributed to that trend, many of which we discussed in the previous debate on this issue, including habitat loss from historical farming intensification, poor food availability and disease.

The impact that overseas hunting may have on British populations of migratory birds is unclear at the moment. Malta’s geographic position means it is unlikely that a significant proportion of our migratory bird populations pass over it; most are thought to come through places such as Gibraltar. We therefore think that spring hunting in Malta is unlikely to be having a direct impact on populations here. However, my right hon. Friend has made the valid point that he is not taking a British but a European perspective on the issue, and it may be having an impact on populations elsewhere.

Domestically, we have implemented a range of initiatives to help improve bird populations. When I last discussed the issue with my right hon. Friend, we talked at great length about the environmental stewardship schemes and the new environmental land management schemes. Turtle doves are one of six targeted species for funding in the current regime, and we expect that the new environmental land management schemes will see further benefits for farmland birds. We have made it clear that we want to prioritise biodiversity.

We are aware that illegal hunting and killing activity is a problem for many countries that are important in the life cycle of migratory birds—that is the case with Malta. This issue therefore needs strong co-operation and enforcement activity at every level. In the UK, the joint nature conservation committee has always played a leading role in the international action plan for African and Eurasian migratory land birds. We are playing our part and continue to make the case on these issues.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend once more on securing the debate. As I said, he has long championed these issues. This is a contentious issue in Malta as well. I am not sure that a British intervention will necessarily help Malta to make up its mind, given that the issue is so contentious and so many people there have expressed clear views on it. The debate has been an interesting one that has highlighted an issue that is important to many people.

Order. I am afraid that as the Minister has concluded his remarks, the sitting stands adjourned, Sir John.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.