The spring hunting of quail and turtle doves, an activity that is banned across Europe, will continue unabated in Malta after voters in a referendum rejected a proposed ban.
The historic referendum was decided on a razor thin margin, with just 2,220 more votes deciding against the ban out of a total of of 250,648 votes cast. The “yes” camp won 50.4% of the vote thanks to a strong showing for the pro-hunting contingent on the island of Gozo, which is part of Malta.
Polls before the vote on Saturday had shown a six-point lead for conservationists, who backed a ban.
Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, said the public had given a last chance for hunters to practise their tradition. “But hunters have to understand that the story has changed for them, totally. Practically half the people do not want spring hunting to continue,” he said. “They have to understand that they must respect the law in the spring hunting season that will open on Tuesday.”
BirdLife Malta, which led the campaign against spring hunting, described it as “missed opportunity to end the killing of birds in spring”.
Hunters are a politically powerful group in Malta, and the leaders of the two main political parties said before the vote that they did not support a ban on spring hunting.
The European court of justice gave Malta special permission to hunt quail and turtle doves in 2009, , ruling that a limited period should be allowed because hunters did not have enough birds to hunt in the autumn season.
According to government-compiled data based on hunters’ own reports, about 2,480 turtle doves and 1,688 quails were shot during the 2014 autumn season, the lowest number ever recorded. In the spring, 4,131 turtle doves, 38% of the permitted quota, and 637 quail were shot.
Saviour Balzan, an anti-hunting activist and managing editor of the English-language newspaper MaltaToday, said: “We did what we could. We didn’t do it for our personal ends. Today in 2015, we know that at least 49% cent of the electorate does not want spring hunting.”
The result may not reflect diehard support for hunters. Even anti-hunting activists have acknowledged that hunting has changed dramatically in Malta since the 1980s and early 1990s, when it was largely an unchecked and unregulated pastime.
Since Malta joined the EU, fines and penalties are doled out against people who illegally hunt protected birds, and the periods during which hunting is allowed have been curtailed.
“With only a narrow vote to continue to allow this cruel and unnecessary carnage, it is time for the Maltese government to demonstrate that it is determined to stamp out illegal hunting,” said Joe Duckworth, chief executive for the League Against Cruel Sports in the UK. “Enforcement must be improved and strengthened so that illegal hunters are caught and punished appropriately.”