Spring quail and turtle dove hunting is banned across Europe, except in Malta.
Maltese citizens voted down a referendum that would have banned the spring bird hunting season. The vote was decided by a razor thin margin – just 2,220 votes of the 250,648 total votes cast – leaving the spring season intact but widely unpopular.
“Hunters have to understand that the story has changed for them, totally. Practically half the people do not want spring hunting to continue,” said Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, after the results were announced. “They have to understand that they must respect the law in the spring hunting season that will open on Tuesday.”
BirdLife Malta, an organization that led the campaign to ban spring hunting, described the failed referendum as a “missed opportunity” in a tweet.
Hunting may be unpopular in Malta, but hunters are a powerful force in the country’s politics. Spring bird hunting is banned across Europe but Malta was given an exception in 2009 by the European court of justice. Leaders of Malta’s two largest political parties said they did not support a ban before the issue was put to a vote.
Conservationists point to the lack of a harvestable surplus of quail and turtle doves as evidence that a hunting ban is needed. About 2,480 turtle doves and 1,688 quails were taken by hunters in the 2014 autumn season, the lowest number ever recorded.
Those in favor of the ban acknowledge that hunting in Malta today is much more ecologically sound than it was in the 1980s and 90s, when it went largely unregulated. Illegal hunting remains a hot topic issue in the country, sometimes leading to violent confrontations between hunters and bird activists.
Chris Packham, a documentary filmmaker who made a series of short videos about bird hunting in Malta, called the country “a bird hell” after witnessing dozens of endangered migratory birds being illegally hunted.