My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
On the day that Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik celebrates 35 years of the EU Birds Directive (see here), I am pleased to host a blog from Steve Micklewright, Executive Director of our partner, Birdlife Malta. He has kindly taken the time to give an update on some appalling events in Malta, triggered by the decision to introduce a temporary closure of the hunting season.
Malta has found itself in a storm of controversy in recent days. Following a series of shootings of rare and protected birds, including white storks, by some of the islands 10,000 hunters, the Prime Minister decided to close the autumn hunting season from 20th September until 10th October. These dates were chosen because they usually coincide with the peak of migration of protected species over the islands, especially raptors.
There is another, more political reason for closing the season for this amount of time. Karmenu Vella has been nominated by Malta and selected by the new European President to be Commissioner with responsibility for the environment. He is due to undergo a serious grilling by MEPs on 29th September and Malta’s terrible reputation with respect to bird hunting and trapping is likely to be high on their list of concerns. The European Commission will also be visiting Malta on 9th October to discuss with BirdLife Malta, the FKNK (theMaltese hunters federation) and the Maltese Government how the derogation from the Birds Directive which allows hunting in spring and a new derogation which will allow finch trapping are being implemented.
A show of strength against the abuses of hunters was therefore both useful politically as well as likely to save the lives of countless protected species that would otherwise be illegally shot.
However, it is to be hoped that the MEPs that will question Karmenu Vella next week will see through these political motives and instead focus on the huge abuses of EU rules which take place in Malta. It is now the only country that allows hunting in spring for turtle doves and quail and it is about to reverse a commitment to ban the trapping of finches forever – this commitment was part of Malta being allowed to join the EU in the first place.
Since it was elected in 2013, the new Labour government has put the demands of hunters above bird conservation and it has systematically weakened the controls on hunting and trapping that existed. One of the reasons protected birds have been targeted recently is that the government removed a 3pm curfew on hunting during the peak migration of raptors to prevent them being targeted. It was inevitable that this rollback would result in a slaughter of birds. The situation has been compounded by the redeployment of experienced enforcement officers in to other parts of the police force and the systematic harassment of BirdLife Malta’s staff and volunteers by the police, including the high profile detention of naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham in April.
The temporary closure of the hunting season, which usually runs from five months between September 1st and January 31st, resulted in an explosive reaction from the hunting community.
On the day Malta celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from the UK, with Prince William as guest of honour; several hundred hunters took part in an illegal protest in the capital, Valletta. One brandished an apparently fake shotgun, while others hurled abuse and bottles at government supporters and attacked journalists. After the protest, a group of 30 hunters then went to Buskett woodlands where thirteen BirdLife Malta volunteers and their friends, including a 7 year old child, had gathered to watch the daily arrival of birds of prey to the woodlands to begin roosting.
Instead of quietly enjoying the natural spectacle of raptors coming in to roost for the night, the volunteers were set upon by the hunters. An elderly gentleman was punched in the face and had to go to hospital for treatment of his cuts and bruises and another volunteer suffered a leg injury. Riot police quickly attended the scene and the volunteers were safely escorted from the woodland.
This is what happens in Malta when the hunting community does not get what it wants.
This thuggish and disgusting behaviour is also coinciding with a meeting in Brussels organised by FACE, the European Hunters Federation, to discuss the Birds Directive. Two representatives of the Maltese hunters’ federation will be in attendance. It is essential that MEPs probe Mr Vella’s attitude to hunting on Malta as it is relevant to his suitability to be confirmed in post. Maltese hunters are almost certainly pressuring FACE to call for a weakening of the Birds Directive to legitimise the decimation of migrating birds that takes place on Malta every year, we have to expect that the more reasonable hunters in the federation will argue in favour of keeping the Birds Directive in tact. Any weakening would result in even more unsustainable hunting in Europe, something which is as bad for hunters as it is for birdwatcher and the birds themselves.
If you would like to support Birdlife Malta's extraordinary efforts, you can donate here.
Another concern over the Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action suitability for office is highlighted in this letter to Mr Juncker yesterday. I think that this portfolio also carries significant concern for the environment as well as Mr Vella's.
Mr Jean-Claude Juncker
President of the European Commission
Brussels, 24 September 2014
Dear Mr Juncker,
As your commissioners-designate are preparing for scrutiny by the European Parliament, it will have come
to your attention that there are mounting concerns and criticism with regard to one of the members of
your proposed College. Serious questions have been raised concerning Miguel Arias Cañete’s suitability for
the role of commissioner and, in particular, for the Energy and Climate Action portfolio for which he has
been proposed. In addition to evidence of his unacceptable sexist attitude, Mr Cañete’s candidacy has also
raised a number potential conflicts of interest.
1. While his direct links to the oil industry were severed on 18 September 2014 (on the eve of his financial
declaration), the sale of his personal shares in Petrolifera Ducar and Petrologis Canaris is still insufficient
evidence for him to be able to claim to “avoid the slightest notion of potential conflict of interest”. In fact
his wife, son and brother in law all remain as either shareholders or board members of these companies.
2. According to investigations by independent NGOs and Spanish newspapers, there are serious suspicions
that these personal and family interests have been partly hidden, through tax-evasion mechanisms, in a
Netherlands based shell-company (Havorad BV). The €13million holding directly benefits companies
bearing either Mr Cañete’s or his family’s name.
3. According to the Spanish press, his wife’s activities as a land-owner with interests in commercial bullbreeding
made her a beneficiary of CAP subsidies; subsidies for which Mr Cañete fought as Member of the
European Parliament in 1996. Later, in 2002 she was under investigation for profits gained through
possible access to privileged information due to her husband’s position as Agriculture Minister.
All of this raises grave concerns on Mr Cañete’s commitment to the general interest.
Mr Juncker, on 1 November you will be the new guardian of the Treaties, whose Art.17(3) TUE states that
“The members of the Commission shall be chosen on the ground of their general competence and
European commitment from persons whose independence is beyond doubt.”
This raises three questions:
Were you aware of Mr Cañete’s potential conflict of interest?
How do you intend to guarantee his compliance with the European Commissioners’ Code of conduct?
How do you intend to guarantee that Mr Cañete’s independence is actually beyond reasonable doubt?
We look forward to your response.
Rebecca Harms Philippe Lamberts
Thanks for the update, Konstantin. That's really good to hear.
Mr Ibis - am delighted that you are beginning to get some responses. Here's hoping the pressure encourages all those in authority in Brussels to see sense.
I received today the following letter from the office of Keith Taylor, Green MEP for the South-East. It is good to see pressure building up on this issue.
Thank you for forwarding the letter from the Green10 group to Keith, about the potential unsuitability of the new EU Commissioners-designate in relation to the EU's environmental policy.
Please be assured that the Greens/EFA group completely share your and the Green10's reservations. Next week, the new Commissioners will be submitted to intense scrutiny and questioning by MEPs in the European Parliament in a series of hearings. The Greens will not be holding back and are currently developing a full range of in-depth questions for each proposed Commissioner on their suitability for their new posts and their social and environmental commitments.
You may be interested to know that the letter you attached was circulated widely within the Greens/EFA group. Right now, in the European Parliament, a reception is taking place where the Directors of the Green 10 organisations and MEPs are meeting to discuss Europe's future policy agenda on climate change, energy, biodiversity, sustainability, air quality and many other environment-related sectors. Rest assured that Keith is in attendance.
I hope this helps to outline Keith and the Green's position on the matter. Thanks again for taking the time to bring this letter to Keith's attention, and please don't hesitate to get back in touch if you have any further questions.
For more information about Keith's work as an MEP, please see his website at: www.keithtaylormep.org.uk
Office of Keith Taylor MEP
Green Party MEP for South East England
It is now in the hands of Members of the European Parliament, in including those from the UK, to ensure bird protection will be properly enforced in Malta and elsewhere in the EU. MEPs have to stop the plans of the Juncker-Commission, who wants to give bird protection in the hands of a Maltese politician and who asks him to "modernise" the Birds Directive. So everyone who knows an MEP or can reach out to her/him, should pass on this message by Monday!
By the way, the above mentioned FACE-conference yesterday concluded with a very encouraging call from the hunting community not to touch the Birds Directive: "FACE stands firm on its commitment taken with BirdLife International, not to support initiatives aimed at amending the text of the Birds Directive, believing that such initiatives would only weaken the current provisions of the Directive, which is not in the interest of either party."(www.face.eu/.../hunters-call-on-the-eu-for-more-recognition-of-their-environmental-role)
Pass this on to your MEP a.s.a.p. (I have!)so that she or he is fully informed before the hearing of the new Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella (Malta) by the European Parliament on 29 September!!!
I wrote to all my MEPs by email urging them to strongly oppose the appointment of Karmenu Vella. I received one reply from Lib Dem Catherine Bearder, published on Martin's blog a few days ago, but not even an acknowledgement from any others. It seems that we cannot rely on the support of many of our MEPs and that they have no interest in the environment! The situation reported above is absolutely appalling.
I salute the courage of all those trying to put a stop to this disgusting hunting in Malta and Cyprus, especially those on the ground in these islands. They are literally standing up to this revolting practice on the firing line.
What is needed, and is long over due, is for senior people in the EU and the Governments of these two islands to show the same courage in standing up to these hunters, enforcing the law and stopping their horrible practices.
The deplorable hunting of birds both in Malta and Cyprus is sickening, and I can only hope that people will keep on regisering their disgust by not visiting these countries and hopefully the loss of currency will pay a part in the governments coming to their senses and banning hunting for all birds.