Malta Earns Rebuke at Top EU Court for Finch Trapping

(CN) – The European Court of Justice scorched the country Malta on Thursday for its unrestrained and poorly supervised scheme that allows residents to trap seven species of finch.

Photo by BirdLife Malta.

In Malta, an Mediterranean archipelago 50 miles south of Italy, the tradition of keeping the small birds in cages is an old one. As part of its 2004 accession to the European Union in 2004, however, Malta had to begin regulating the practice to comport with the EU directive on bird protections.

The EU does offer exemptions from the directive, but to qualify member states must show that they have no alternative to capturing or keeping certain birds. Exemption also hinges on strict supervision of the scheme, and a demand that only select birds are captured, in small numbers.

Finding that Malta’s trapping season for seven species of finch did not make the grade, regulators at the European Commission filed suit.

The European Court of Justice counted up four total infractions in its judgment Thursday.

“It follows from all the foregoing considerations that the Republic of Malta has not adduced sufficient evidence that its derogation regime for the trapping of the seven finch species in question makes it possible to ensure the maintenance of the populations of those species at a satisfactory level,” the ruling states.

From Oct. 20, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2014, Malta permitted the capture of 7,222 birds from the linnet, goldfinch, greenfinch, siskin, hawfinch, chaffinch and serin species.

Thursday’s ruling says Malta failed to show “that the bag limits, fixed at 800 specimens for the goldfinch and 5,000 for the chaffinch, correspond to ‘small numbers.’”

“The same applies to the Hawfinch, for which, first, there has been no ring recovery reported in Malta,” the ruling continues.

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

As for the four other finch species, the court found that Malta relied on too limited study to support its claims about bird populations.

“Furthermore, the 2007 Raine study itself shows that, in Malta, trapping is so intensive that only a handful of each of the common finch species regularly breed on the islands, whereas they breed in high numbers in other areas of the Mediterranean,” the ruling states. “According to that study, breeding populations in Malta, in particular of the serin, the greenfinch and the linnet, only include, at most, one to five pairs.”

The nongovernmental organization BirdLife Malta meanwhile conducted a study in 2015 that showed there was frequent “failure to observe the restrictions relating to authorized catch periods and locations, in particularly by trapping inside ‘Natura 2000’ sites … during the 2014 autumn capturing season.”

Thursday’s ruling says the BirdLife Malta study confirms that the the trapping season did not qualify as selective since by-catch was reported, even though the nets were manually triggered by hunters.

BirdLife Malta applauded the decision out of Luxembourg and called on the Maltese government today to “never open the trapping season for finches again.”

“Now that the government faces the delicate task to enforce the European court’s decision, BirdLife Malta is ready to assist government in implementing the verdict  providing advice based on scientific facts, conservation values and full implementation of the EU Birds Directive,” the group said in a statement.

BirdLife Malta emphasized that the ruling should also prompt the Maltese “government to halt the trapping season for golden plover and song thrush since the methods applied in this case are the same as those applied to capture finches.”

“The fact that trapping for these two bird species is also subject to infringement procedures against Malta on an EU level which could lead to Malta being taken to court even in this case must not be ignored,” the group added. “The conclusions of today’s verdict which stops Malta from opening a finch trapping season apply for any other bird species, so the government should seriously consider stopping trapping altogether.”

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