In Depth

Bird hunters celebrate as Malta rejects hunting ban

Spring hunting season set to begin after a closely contested referendum pitted conservation against tradition

The spring hunting of quail and turtle doves is to continue in Malta after hunters celebrated a narrow victory in a referendum which could have banned the controversial practice. 

Just 50.44 per cent of Maltese voted in favour of allowing hunters to continue to kill the birds during the spring hunting season, which begins this week and runs to the end of April.

The head of the country’s hunting association said he was "ecstatic" that a ban had been rejected, the BBC reported. Joe Perici Calascione of the Federation for Hunting and Conservation said that spring hunting was an "integral part" of Maltese tradition.

Malta is the only country in the EU that allows the recreational spring hunting of the two species, under strict regulations. There are 10,000 licenced hunters who are legally required to declare every time they go hunting and make a kill.

"We're the most regulated country in Europe with regards to hunting," said Calascione. "The hunting we do is sustainable."

Responding to critics who argue that the practice is cruel, one hunter told the BBC: "I'm sure [those people] eat chicken, they eat rabbits. You have to kill to eat. What we hunt, we eat. We don't throw it away."

Birdlife Malta, which led the campaign to ban the practice, said it was “devastated” to lose by such a narrow margin. Conservationists want it banned because it takes place during a crucial migration season.

They argue the practice must be banned in spring, as hunters are killing birds that have survived the winter and are returning to Europe to breed. The turtle dove population is especially threatened, whose numbers have fallen almost 80 per cent since 1980.

"This isn't just a Maltese problem. These birds are moving between Africa and mainland Europe – it's an African-European issue," BirdLife Malta executive director Steve Micklewright told Deutsche Welle.

Campaigners also argue that hunters dominate the restricted amount of open space on the island. "We never manage to walk freely and use what's left of our countryside,” said the campaign’s spokeswoman Moira Delia. “We come across these vulgar and very intimidating men, armed, who shout at us and send us home."

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