Malta's to curb hunters who kill millions of migrating birds

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The Independent Online

Many more spring migrant birds may soon be able to get through to nest in Britain and other European countries because curbs are finally being introduced to prevent one of the biggest dangers they face on their journey from Africa - massacre in Malta.

Restrictions are finally on the way for the savage and concentrated wildlife slaughter that is the annual shoot of wild birds on the small Mediterranean island. European Union law is at last catching up with a killing frenzy that has virtually no parallel on the continent.

Every year scarcely believable numbers of thrushes, robins, larks, swallows, turtle doves and many other species, including birds of prey, are shot out of the sky as they try to use the island, situated between Sicily and Tunisia, as a staging-post in their Mediterranean crossing from Africa to Europe, and back again.

Anything that flies, from eagles to wrens, is considered fair game, with shooting taking place not only on the rocky island itself but from speedboats at sea as flocks fly past.

Some estimates of birds killed annually put the full toll at roughly two million birds, while thousands more songbirds, especially finches, are caught for the caged bird trade. The massacre of migratory flocks has provoked great anger and opposition in much of Europe where many of the birds nest when on their way to, or from, Africa. The annual massacre is thought to significantly contribute to the 70 per cent plunge in numbers of turtle doves nesting in Europe in the last 25 years - and is among other countries who over-hunt the species on their migration routes. Yet the Maltese have hitherto always been able to thumb their nose at conservationists, claiming that their bird slaughter is a national tradition. With 16,800 registered hunters and trappers) in a population of 400,000, there is powerful hunting lobby.

Now, however, the European Union is making a difference. When Malta joined the EU two years ago it was at once set on collision course with a very powerful piece of EU law - the 1979 Birds Directive, which gives many bird species protection.

The Maltese Government has tried to ignore the Birds Directive but the EU Commission in Brussels has increased the pressure on the island to conform. Late last week, faced with an imminent threat of being taken to court by the Commission, the Maltese caved in. The Government issued its Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations, 2006, to give the EU Directive force in Maltese law.

In future, Malta will have to shorten the hunting season for several species of wild birds and may have to scrap the spring hunting of birds such as turtle dove and quail. BirdLife International which has publicised the excesses of the Maltese hunting frenzy, welcomed the move at the weekend.

"Malta has finally accepted that it has been breaching European legislation since entering the Community almost two years ago" said Konstantin Kreiser from BirdLife International in Brussels. "It is a pity... that this 'understanding' only took place after Malta saw itself in the spotlight of European-wide criticism and under the immediate threat of being taken to the European Court of Justice."