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Brussels, 10 September 2009
Environment: Court confirms that spring hunting in Malta is in breach of EU law
The European Court of Justice today delivered its judgment in a case concerning the spring hunting of birds in Malta. The judgment clarifies that spring hunting may only be permitted under certain strict conditions strictly proportionate with the aim of conserving bird species. The Commission had taken Malta to court for failing to provide adequate protection for birds, and had also applied for special interim measures to ensure that spring hunting did not continue while the case was being considered.
Spring hunting in Malta
The Commission took Malta to the European Court of Justice under Article 226 of the EC Treaty for failure to comply with EU legislation protecting wild birds. Under the Birds Directive 1 the killing of wild birds is not permitted, though some species can be hunted as long as it does not take place during the breeding or spring migration season. Exceptionally, Member States may allow the capture or killing of birds covered by the Directive outside of the normal hunting season for a limited number of reasons, although such derogations are only applied when there is no alternative solution.
Until 2008 Malta permitted the hunting of two species of birds, quails ( Coturnix coturnix) and turtle doves ( Streptopelia turtur), during spring, a key period of migration and breeding. The hunting of these migratory birds took place during their return from Africa to breeding grounds in Europe, before they have had a chance to reproduce. The impact on bird numbers is therefore more significant than it would be in autumn or winter, after the breeding season. In April 2008, the Commission applied to the Court for interim measures to prevent further hunting of birds during spring whilst the case was being considered. The Court subsequently agreed, as a result of which no legislation permitting spring hunting in Malta was adopted in 2008 or in 2009.
In reaching its judgment of today, the Court has clarified that the spring hunting season in Malta which resulted in a mortality rate for that period some three times higher for quails and eight times higher for turtle doves than for the autumn hunting season did not constitute an adequate solution that was strictly proportionate to the aim of conserving bird species.
Hunting rules at EU level
Hunting is regulated in the EU by the 1979 Wild Birds Directive. Although the Directive contains a general prohibition on the killing of wild birds, it does allow certain species to be hunted provided this does not happen during breeding or migration. These closed periods are critical and allow wild birds to renew their numbers. Hunting periods are set at national levels, and vary according to species and geographical location.
The Commission supports sustainable hunting, and a ground-breaking agreement on sustainable hunting was signed in 2004 by hunters and bird conservationists at EU level. For further details see:
Article 226 of the EC Treaty (the Treaty establishing the European Community) gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.
If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.
In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (second and final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, normally two months.
If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.
Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgment of the European Court of Justice, again by issuing a first written warning (“Letter of Formal Notice”) and then a second and final written warning (“Reasoned Opinion”). The article then allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.
In the case concerning spring hunting in Malta, the judgment was given at the Article 226 stage.
Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds