Times of Malta, 26 August 2010, by David Schembri

The punishment meted out to the three hunters who admitted to vandalising 104 trees at the Foresta 2000 woodland in Mellieħa is not enough, park warden Ray Vella insists.

The three hunters – Darren Cross, 24, from Birkirkara, Noel Grech, 24, and Charlot Chetcuti, 20, both from Mosta – on Tuesday pleaded guilty to sawing off the trees and saplings.

They were fined €1,000 each and ordered to do 300 hours of community service. They also had to fork out €1,320 each in damages to pay for the trees they destroyed.

“I think the sentence was lenient, especially when you consider that the legal notice on tree vandalism says destroying protected trees such as these carries with it a minimum fine of €466 per tree,” the warden said, when contacted for his reaction to the ruling.

Mr Vella, who went to the park he supervises on April 26 to find 104 saplings deliberately sawn off, has nothing but praise for the police who “did a very good job to catch these people – with no leads”.

Petra Bianchi, president of Din l-Art Ħelwa, the organisation that manages the site along with BirdLife Malta, said “this was a destructive act that harmed the natural environment and undermined many hours of work for it, so I hope the hours of community service will include actions that directly benefit the environment”.

Nature Trust executive president Vince Attard said it was a good thing the offenders were caught.

“It’s good that, finally, someone was caught. I’m disappointed that the courts are too lenient. Were it a minor environmental crime it would have been one thing but something on this scale deserved a harsher punishment,” Mr Attard said.

In his opinion, it is about time the courts took the environment more into consideration when meting out punishments in such crimes.

“One hopes the courts will be harsher in similar cases. It wasn’t one organisation that suffered through this crime but all of the Maltese population.”

Gaia foundation director Rudolf Ragonesi said the sentence could go a long way to set an example against such crimes. It was a step in the right direction.

“If the judgment is publicised it could go much further but if these people manage to disappear into obscurity it would be better for them,” Dr Ragonesi said.

He said that if people were to see the three hunters do community service it would send out a strong message that there was a price to pay for one’s actions, “even though you can’t put a price on nature”.

The hunters’ federation, FKNK, “strongly and unequivocally” condemned “such cowardly act against the environment”.

“Over decades, hunters and trappers have planted and cared for tens of thousands of trees all over Malta and Gozo, definitely much more than any other sector of the society, and this is precisely why such vandalism cannot be tolerated by the FKNK,” the federation said in a statement.

It said it was immediately suspending this year’s membership and the relative insurance policy of Mr Cross and Mr Chetcuti of Mosta and would not renew Mr Grech’s membership and insurance policy.

Kaċċaturi San Umbertu also condemned the vandalism, add­ing that “hunting issues should be resolved by the involvement of all parties concerned through democratic means around a negotiating table”.

“Unfortunately, certain malicious actions by fanatics from both sides of the fence prevent such dialogue being possible and only lead to more animosity.”

Many of the trees damaged in April had been planted in October 2007 to replace 3,000 that had been destroyed in a previous systematic act of vandalism. The shrubs had been bought thanks to €58,000 donated by the public and were also planted by the public.