Tomorrow, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF and the RSPB are hosting a hustings event for the environment spokespeople of each of the major parties (Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP) running in England in the 22 May European Parliamentary election.

It will be run in the style of 'Question Time' and it should be fun - Europe lends itself to a calm and reasoned debate doesn't it?

But irrespective of their particular views about UK membership of the EU, I look forward to hearing how each of the representatives intend to deal with cross-border environmental challenges such as tackling climate change and conserving migratory species.  And it would be good if they could offer a positive vision for the future of the Common Agriculture Policy - one that  delivers public benefit for the c400 billion Euros of taxpayers money.

Each of the panellists are current Members of the European Parliament so should be well-versed in EU environmental policy. They should be well aware that much of our current environmental legislation emanates from the EU including the Birds and Habitats Directives.  They should know that these directives were established in 1979 and 1992 respectively and were designed not only to conserve European wildlife but also to prevent any one country gaining competitive advantage by trashing the environment.

Although the Directives occasionally get bad press from those wishing to pursue economic growth at any cost, in truth they offer sensible tests of sustainable development and smart developers invest the time and effort to work with the legislation rather than seek to bypass it.  More than that - if properly implemented they would be the principle legislative tool by which Member States would meet the shared commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020.  

I also look forward to hearing how the representatives respond to the raised profile of spring hunting on Malta and the desire of the conservation community to bring it to an end as quickly as possible to improve the conservation prospects of species such as turtle dove.  I do not expect them to be aware of all the legal detail (see below) and history of spring hunting - but they should have a view on whether it should continue and, if they think it should stop, how they would go about bringing it to an end.  

There will obviously be disagreement about whether Membership of the EU is in the best interest of the UK.  But I hope that we do get agreement that all parties want to protect and enhance the environment across Europe.  The battle for ideas about the best way to achieve that can then be joined.

I'll let you know what happens.


A crib sheet for those interested in the legality and recent history of hunting migratory birds in the EU

Article 7.4. of the Birds Directive obliges EU Member States, in national legislation, to see that the species to which hunting regulations apply are not hunted during their period of reintroduction or during their return to their rearing grounds (ie. their breeding season or spring migration).

At present, Malta is the only country in the EU that applies a derogation from the Directive to allow spring hunting of quail and turtle dove.

In 2008 and 2009 no spring hunting (of quail and turtle dove) was permitted, for the first time ever, due to an injunction from the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This followed a BirdLife Malta complaint to the European Commission in 2005 and a petition to the Prime Minister of 115,000 signatures from RSPB members.

However, in 2010 spring hunting was reopened. This was despite an ECJ ruling that by allowing spring hunting in 2004-2007 Malta had failed to comply with the conditions for derogation and thus was in breach of the Birds Directive.

Birdlife Malta's proposed referendum is designed to end spring hunting once and for all.

Some of the species (such as turtle dove) legally hunted in Malta, may also be legally hunted elsewhere in Europe, particularly across the Mediterranean region. Hunting of this species is restricted to the autumn migration period elsewhere in Europe. Published annual bag statistics for this species from across the EU help put the scale of hunting in Malta into the wider context. For example, more than 20 times more turtle doves are shot in Spain alone each year compared to Malta (annual bags of 52,782 in Malta compared to 1,200,000 in Spain).  These figures are from a report published in 2007 (here), and so may now be different. But it does perhaps raise a few questions. The RSPB has recently commissioned a report that will try to establish what the current figures are likely to be in Western Europe, and to put these into the context of recent population estimates and data for breeding productivity for this species.

For some 10 years, hunting interests in France tried to weaken the Birds Directive to allow the long French hunting season. BirdLife successfully fought this with support from RSPB members and in March 2000 presented the largest ever conservation petition to the European Parliament (2.2 million signatures from across Europe with 521,000 from the UK and one million from France).

In July 2002, France reduced its hunting seasons and staggered them. Since then hunting has begun in September except on maritime public property where it can open in August for water birds.

In January 2005, for the first time, France set a fixed closing date for the hunting season. It now ends on 31 January for all species except pigeons and thrushes (10 February) and doves, quail and woodcock (20 February).

Cyprus was also the subject of a BirdLife complaint to the EU for opening hunting under the guise of crow control for six days in spring 2008. This followed a written warning from the Commission to Cyprus for permitting two days of turtle dove shooting in spring 2007. Spring hunting has not since been opened.