VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta votes in a referendum on Saturday to decide whether to overturn a law that allows the hunting of breeding birds in spring, a centuries-old tradition that is not allowed anywhere else in the European Union. Under an EU exemption, Maltese hunters are allowed 20 days to hunt turtle doves and quails between April and May, a time when the birds fly north to breed after wintering in Africa.
Environmentalists have called repeatedly for the EU to ban the practice that they say endangers the species.
“These birds fly twice over the Sahara, twice over the Mediterranean, only to be killed in their last step as they prepare to breed,” said Mark Sultana, a spokesman for anti-bird hunting group, SHout, or Spring Hunting out.
The hunters argue that the autumn season is not enough and reject the environmentalists’ argument. “Different values and minorities must co-exist in society. This time it’s the hunters, but next time it will be someone else,” hunting lobby spokeswoman, Kathleen Grima, said.
Polls have shown no clear majority for either camp. If the vote goes against the hunters, the referendum will have been the first to overturn an existing law in Malta. Malta’s political parties have not declared a formal position but Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and opposition leader Simon Busuttil have said they will personally vote for spring hunting.
Busuttil was part of the Maltese team that negotiated with the EU to allow limited spring hunting before Malta joined the bloc 10 years ago. The results of the referendum are due on Sunday. Saturday’s poll will also see the Maltese vote to elect half of the Mediterranean island’s local councils, a mid-term test for Muscat, whose Labour Party was elected to a five-year term in 2013 with a strong majority.
Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Louise Ireland