Malta criticised for mass shooting of migratory birds

image captionMaltese hunters can shoot turtle doves legally

A leading British naturalist has accused the Maltese authorities of failing to prevent large-scale illegal shooting of migratory birds by hunters.

Chris Packham, who is in Malta, said rare species were being targeted, and hunters were even shooting Montagu's harrier birds on the ground at night.

"It's a desperate situation," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

A Maltese wildlife official insisted that patrols to stop illegal hunting had been stepped up.

Malta has an exemption from the EU Birds Directive, allowing its hunters to shoot turtle doves and quail during the spring migration, a crucial stage in the birds' life cycle. But according to Mr Packham, turtle doves were vulnerable, with their numbers down by 95% in the UK.

media captionMigrant birds in Malta "shot as trophies", says wildlife expert Chris Packham

Malta is the only EU country to have a recreational spring hunting season allowing birds to be shot.

Mr Packham, a presenter of TV documentaries on wildlife, said Maltese hunters were ignoring restrictions under the exemption, or "derogation" in EU jargon. He said they were killing many other birds which are supposed to be protected.

He is in Malta with the conservation group Birdlife Malta to draw attention to the annual spring shoot, which has been criticised by environmentalists for years.

"Yesterday I'm afraid to say I had a dead swift in my hand that had been illegally shot and also a dead little bittern," Mr Packham told Today.

Sergei Golovkin, head of Malta's Wild Birds Regulation Unit, insisted that the authorities were controlling the hunters.

He said enforcement of the restrictions had "improved dramatically in the last few years". Malta has "the highest ratio in Europe" of enforcement staff deployed against illegal hunting, he told Today.

Thirty-three MEPs have jointly lobbied the European Commission to put pressure on Malta over the hunting exemption. A British Liberal Democrat MEP, Catherine Bearder, says the EU must "stop Malta from breaking EU rules, by systematically failing to apply the derogation correctly".

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