Trapped in deception: Unveiling the true impact of Malta’s finch research derogation

March 6, 2024 1:37 pm

The finch ‘catch and release’ derogation was first initiated in 2020, after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found Malta guilty of finch trapping in 2018. The government introduced the study under the guise of scientific research, which in turn enabled trappers having a special licence, to register trapping sites for the purpose of capturing, recording, and releasing finches. The derogation has so far been applied for four autumns between 2020 and 2023 and is now at the last stage of infringement proceedings by the European Commission. An oral hearing for the court case is scheduled for 7th March 2024 and the case will rate the derogation on two main aspects: whether Malta could justify allowing trappers to target finches under the exception of a research derogation and most notably, whether Malta breached the ECJ sentence of 2018 by allowing a continuation of finch trapping.  

In our submissions made to the Commission in the past weeks, we have demonstrated not simply how this was indeed the case, but how over the past four years, finch trapping has been permitted on a larger scale with even less restrictions and control.

The general setup of the finch research derogation coined in 2020 was not that much different from the pre-2018 derogation after all. Trappers needed to pass a multiple-choice questionnaire with the possibility of a resit, to suddenly be considered as eligible for ‘research’. They had to apply for a seasonal licence, register the same trapping sites authorized in past years and use the same nets. And of course, trappers were meant to check if finches had rings coming from European countries, and were not supposed to keep any of them at all. Even though the occasional slip of the tongue referred to the practice as trapping, it was not supposed to be trapping at all.

Yet this was not enough. Trapping sites were permitted to use electronic bird calls over and above the use of live caged finches to attract their counterparts. In up to 14% of the sites permitted to operate, trappers who possessed also a trapping licence for Golden Plover and Song Thrush could legally trap and research birds from the same exact pair of nets. Never mind that the use of electronic callers for trapping is illegal.

As the 2022 general election approached, some significant changes became apparent. Whereas an authorised trapping site had in previous years been linked to trappers licenced to use it, such that any anomalies or illegalities would be traced to the licence-holders, a single sentence in the 2022 and 2023 licence documents made trappers able to use any authorised site across Malta and Gozo. The decoupling of trapping sites to licence-holders wreaked havoc in effective prosecutions and enforcement. Initially trappers summoned at the law courts to answer for illegalities such as leaving nets active during the night, were met with the presumption that it could have been another trapper on site. Following the mass acquittals of similar cases, the law courts gave up, followed by police. Reports of irregularities on trapping sites not backed up with photographic evidence of the accused being present, were simply a lost case. And no, the environmental police units, rarely if ever have used hand-held cameras to film illegal trapping in action. That initiative is only taken by NGOs such as us.

This wasn’t enough. The softening of penalties related to hunting and trapping was the next step. Prior to February 2022, trapping convictions in court resulted in a suspension of the general trapping licence thus disabling trappers from participating in any trapping or research derogation. A change in the Conservation of Wild Birds’ Regulations introduced a clause which mandated that the penalty vetted by a magistrate would only apply to the respective derogation. In other words, if a trapper who was permitted to trap Golden Plover and Song Thrush as well as ‘research’ finches was found guilty of an offence related to the first trapping licence, he would still be able to continue trapping under the second derogation.

While the above changes may appear cosmetic in documentation related to the derogation, when applied in practice to over 2,600 active trapping sites allowed to operate for a duration of two months every year, the net effect is indeed a significant one. Couple this with a police force which has struggled to field even the minimum amount of police officers required to spot check individual trappers to see if they abide with the derogation conditions, and the picture becomes clear that trappers have had indeed researched through their best of times.

In 2023 we tested it out. Much like a scientific undertaking for ourselves, we wanted to test, if unobserved, trappers indeed researched their finches like they were supposed to. We then extrapolated this to come up with a possible catch. We found out that during the 2023 season, an average of a single finch descended on a trapping site per day. Based on same observations we also determined that on average, trappers managed to catch 65.5% of the birds that landed on their trapping sites. The remaining 34.5% escaped as a result of either a badly constructed trapping site or a misfire of the clap nets. We also however determined that in all cases where birds were caught, birds were kept and taken away in captivity. Some found themselves caged in the boot of the trapper’s vehicle nearby. Others found themselves caged and immediately used as live decoys to help trap even more birds. No caught birds were spared liberty, and no enforcement officers spot-checked the trappers during a 31-day period.

If we had to simply extrapolate the above observations to a nation-wide scenario, and make some very conservative estimates, the true nature of the derogation becomes apparent. As per the Wild Birds Regulation Unit’s own published data, the season permitted a total of 2,616 trapping sites for finches, over a period of 61 days. Let’s however assume that from the whole season only 30 days (roughly half the period) were days suitable for trapping, given strong winds and bad weather. One trapping site multiplied by 30 days by one finch landing per day with a 65.5% catch and keep rate works out to a conservative 19.65 finches caught per trapping site during the season. Multiply this by what effectively the WBRU permitted, i.e. 2,616 sites and the figure comes to a staggering 51,404 finches. This is a simple extrapolation and yet a conservative one that not only assumes trapping sites were only operational for half the permitted time period, but also that an escaped finch managed to make it out alive and not get caught in the next trapping site.

The reality is possibly even worse than this estimate, however. In our fieldwork, we did come across non-registered illegal trapping sites with this resulting in an even larger amount of clap nets. Some of these sites became registered with WBRU and legal to operate after we reported to police. As migration goes, finches flock together, and as we have also observed, it’s not just a single bird that gets caught with one flip of a net, but potentially a whole flock.

When all this is placed in the context of how many finches are calculated to migrate over Malta in a given autumn, the impact becomes shocking. In studies commissioned by the WBRU, a consultancy company estimated that between 57,000 and 185,000 finches migrated every autumn between 2020 and 2022. This equates to as many as 90% of finches incoming in Malta being decimated in the worse scenarios as a result of the research derogation.

And indeed, decimated is the right word in this context. Trapped finches, whether they are kept alive in a cage or killed, are still taken away from their wild populations. While some may live for some time, the majority perish, and this is why trappers keep repeatedly and persistently year after year, trapping more and more birds. This is why also in the weeks prior to finch migration, finches are imported illegally from Sicily to be sold and used as decoys by trappers to be able to catch more like them. Police raids at the Floriana markets on Sunday mornings attest to this.

And this is why truly and essentially, this has not been a research derogation, but a glorified version of the finch trapping derogation that landed Malta with a guilty verdict in 2018. If pre-2018, a derogation to trap a total of 27,500 finches was deemed as breaching the European Birds Directive, one where an estimated 51,400 finches have been caught with the use of bird callers and lax regulations under the guise of science is a mockery and blatant defiance of the court ruling.

We hope justice prevails in the favour of the conservation of wild birds, and trust that never again an exemption to the Birds Directive used for scientific research, becomes the very tool to mask the killing.

By Nicholas Barbara, BirdLife Malta Head of Conservation

This blog was originally published as an opinion piece by the Times of Malta ahead of the ECJ hearing on the smokescreen finch ‘scientific research’ derogation in Luxembourg