EU Adviser Slams Malta’s Legalization of Finch-Trapping

A goldfinch, one of seven species Malta allows hunters to live-trap.

(CN) – A European Court of Justice adviser said Wednesday that Malta’s introduction of a law to allow the trapping of finches violates EU protections of wild birds.

Trapping finches to keep in birdcages has long been a tradition on Malta, an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea 50 miles south of Italy. But when the nation joined the European Union in 2004, one of the conditions called for phasing out the tradition while establishing a captive-breeding program.

But in 2014, Maltese lawmakers introduced a law to permit the trapping of seven species of finches – relying on exceptions in the EU law that allow for trapping when there’s no other solution to protect public health, livestock, crops or for teaching and research.

The European Commission – the EU agency tasked with making sure member states’ laws are in line with EU law – sued Malta, arguing the nation’s reliance on the exceptions were misplaced. And on Wednesday, European Court of Justice Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston agreed.

“The individual categories of derogation contained [in the EU’s wild birds directive] are not, as I read them, intended to serve as a basis for a broad, generalized practice that derogates from the principle of protection. Rather, they are intended to allow member states to address precise requirements and specific situations where it is in the general interest that the normal rule (protection of wild birds) should yield to some other pressing requirement,” Sharpston wrote in a 25-page advisory opinion for the Luxembourg-based high court.

Malta hasn’t shown that its purpose in allowing finches to be trapped – for use in fairs and exhibitions, to breed and for use as live decoys – lives up to the “no other satisfactory solution” part of the EU’s wild birds directive, Sharpston said, but offered an alternative.

“There is no material before the court to suggest that ‘capture, ring and release’ would not be a satisfactory alternative solution,” she wrote. “Objectively, it seems plausible to think that ‘capture, ring and release’ of a much more limited number of birds for strictly scientific purposes would allow trappers to continue to derive pleasure from exercising their skills to trap birds whilst reducing significantly the negative impact on bird conservation.

Sharpston also objected to Malta allowing trappers to use enormous clap-nets – measuring up to 42 square yards – to capture the finches.

“Such nets are a method for capture that is both large-scale and non-selective,” the adviser wrote. “To the extent that finches tend to fly in flocks, it is plausible that significant numbers of finches will be caught in the net simultaneously. Even if the ‘surplus’ finches are immediately released, as Malta submits, that does not seem to me sufficient to conclude that the method of trapping ceases to be either ‘large-scale’ or ‘non-selective.’

“It is also plausible that at least some will suffer stress from the experience and may not survive,” she added. “It may even be that there is some risk – I make no attempt to evaluate the possible extent of such a risk – that the use of such nets by 4,000 license holders over a hunting season of 73 days may, potentially, be ‘capable of causing the local disappearance of a species.’”

Sharpston’s opinion is not binding on the EU high court, which has begun its deliberations in the case.

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