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Europe and Central Asia

Malta misses a chance to end spring hunting of birds

By Communications, 13 Apr 2015

On Saturday 11th April, Maltese citizens lost the opportunity to put an end to the controversial spring hunting of birds in their country during a national referendum. A decision that will have consequences for bird conservation across Europe and beyond.

Malta lies along the migratory route between Africa and Europe, and is an important resting place for countless migratory birds as they journey north to breed in the spring. Spring hunting has long been a contentious issue in the country: it is prohibited under EU law but successive Maltese governments have implemented a derogation allowing the killing of certain migratory birds, including rare and endangered species.

Malta is the only country in Europe to allow the killing of turtle dove and quail in spring. Both species have suffered serious declines across Europe, with turtle dove numbers plummeting by 77% since 1980. Many other types of rare and protected birds are also targeted by hunters during the spring hunting season.

Last weekend, 250,648 Maltese (75% of the population) headed to the polls to voice their opinion during a national referendum which proposed a ban on spring hunting. The majority took 50.9% of the votes and only won with an extremely narrow margin of 2.220 votes against the ban - allowing the contentious spring hunting season to continue as before.

Ariel Brunner, head of EU Policy at BirdLife Europe stated: “We respect the vote but regret its outcome. It leaves Malta in a messy situation. The current spring hunting derogation does not conform to EU law and hence will need to be revised, regardless of the referendum outcome. The Maltese government is free to apply derogation in the spirit of today’s vote, but it still must conform to the EU legislation it is signed up to. More than ever, this case shows why the protection of EU’s nature requires EU strong EU level legislation.”

The birds migrating through Malta in spring are migrating to other EU countries to breed. These birds face a range of threats along their route, including degradation of habitats where they stop during their long journey. In Europe, spring hunting is prohibited under EU law as adult birds are killed before they have a chance to breed, which threatens reproduction and population numbers. The outcome of Malta’s referendum means continuing a practice which has proved to be an obstacle to bird conservation in Europe.

The referendum was called for by Maltese citizens, 43,000 of whom signed a petition to ask for the abrogative referendum to be held. While the outcome was not what environmental campaigners had hoped for, the process has nonetheless been hailed as putting nature and environmental issues firmly on the agenda.

Steve Micklewright, Director of BirdLife Malta, one of the organisations leading the campaign to abolish spring hunting concluded: “Although we are disappointed with the result, to have elevated this issue to national and European levels is an incredible achievement. Thousands of Maltese people have been engaged in the debate and empowered to take a decision on their environment. Thousands voted to end spring hunting and we are sure that these people will continue to act as champions of Maltese and European nature protection. This in itself cannot be underestimated."