Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Monday, 21 September 2009 14:42 UK

Protected birds killed in Malta

Dead marsh harrier, pic courtesy of BirdLife Malta
The bodies of 150 protected birds have been found since Sunday, activists say

The dead bodies of 150 protected birds have been found on the Mediterranean island of Malta as activists search what they call a "major crime scene".

Conservation groups have criticised the Maltese government for failing to halt illegal hunting of protected birds during the island's autumn season.

Malta's government has previously said it would take action against anyone found to be killing protected species.

Malta lies along a major bird migratory route between Europe and Africa.

BirdLife Malta has called on the government to start treating the illegal hunting as a political priority.

'Bird cemetery'

The bodies of 150 protected birds - including falcons, marsh harriers, night herons, honey buzzards and a nightingale - have been found hidden in small stashes under stones and woodland scrub since Sunday, conservationists said.

This is a major crime scene and the police have not even cordoned it off
Dr Andre Raine
BirdLife Malta

While many were clearly killed some time ago, others had reportedly been shot as recently as the weekend.

BirdLife Malta said it was disappointed police had not taken more action to limit the hunt.

"This is a major crime scene and the police have not even cordoned it off," said Dr Andre Raine, conservation manager for BirdLife Malta.

"It's an embarrassment to have one of the main hunting areas littered with dead bodies... This place is literally a bird cemetery."

The group has called on Malta's government to give the island's police force more resources to combat illegal hunting.

Many more carcasses of protected birds were expected to be found as only one-third of the hunting area in the Mizieb woodland had been searched, Dr Raine told the BBC.

Protect wild birds

Malta's autumn hunting season lasts for five months from 1 September.

Traditionally, the Maltese government has allowed hunters to shoot migratory quails and turtle doves for limited periods during the spring and autumn.

The spring hunting season was halted early in 2007 after a flock of honey buzzards was shot dead, and was not reopened in either 2008 or 2009.

Although the autumn hunt remains legal, the EU Birds Directive rules that member states are obliged to protect wild birds as well as their eggs, nests and habitat.

Malta, which joined the EU in 2004, has since been warned by the European Commission for breaching the directive and allowing hunters to shoot migrating birds during the prohibited period.

BirdLife Malta had invited birdwatchers from across Europe to visit the island during the annual shoot to monitor hunting activity.

The Federation for Hunting and Conservation on Malta (FKNK) has previously condemned the illegal killing of birds, warning that it would disqualify any members convicted of any "serious crime".

Neither the FKNK, nor the Maltese government, were available for comment on Monday.

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