Malta's spring bird hunt is in full swing for what could be the last time before the country is taken to court accused of violating the EU Birds Directive.
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News
The European Commission began infringement proceedings against the country last year, for allowing the hunting of two migratory birds - the quail and the turtle dove - as they travel to their breeding grounds.
A bee eater with fatal injuries, discovered by school children
Malta is the only country in the EU that allows bird hunting in spring.
And according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, some hunters fire at any bird that flies past, not just the two species the government permits.
"They are blasting at everything. While waiting for quail and turtle dove they will use swallows and house martins for target practice," says the RSPB's Grahame Madge.
"They will literally shoot anything that casts a shadow over Malta, they will blast it out of the sky."
Tip of iceberg
Members of the public have been handing dead and injured birds to Birdlife Malta, or e-mailing pictures, almost every day since the season began on 10 April.
The list includes numerous marsh harriers, a bee eater, a golden oriole and a little bittern.
The bee eater was spotted, fatally injured, by primary school children on a visit to nature reserve.
British tourists raised the alert about a dead purple heron on 30 March, 10 days before the season began.
Birdlife Malta's conservation officer, Andre Raine, says the birds handed in represent just the tip of the iceberg, as hunters usually hide any birds they have shot illegally.
"The birds we are getting firstly have to actually manage to fly away from the site where they are shot and then have to be found by a sympathetic member of the public rather than a hunter, and then they have to be reported to us," he says.
"So the chances of getting any of these birds in the first place is very slim."
The Maltese Government says the spring hunting season can be justified under the EU Birds Directive, because the migratory patterns of the quail and turtle dove make it impractical to hunt them in the autumn.
The European Commission rejects this argument and is reportedly pushing ahead with infringement proceedings at full speed.
MALTA BIRD FACTS
Malta is a key resting place for migratory birds crossing the Mediterranean
170 species migrate regularly over the islands to 36 European countries
Many of the birds breed in northern Europe
Malta has an exemption from EU law allowing it to trap finches
Polls suggest most Maltese want the spring hunt banned
It sent the Maltese authorities a first warning in March 2006, and is expected to progress to the next stage of the proceedings later this year, possibly in July, after which the case will be handed to the European Court of Justice.
Birdlife Malta argues that "judicious" autumn hunting of the quail and turtle dove - which the directive might permit under certain conditions - is a contradiction in terms, because their populations are declining or depleted.
Malta is small group of islands with a total area of about 300 sq km, roughly one fifth the size of Greater London, and only half of it is available for hunting.
About 15,000 hunters make use of this limited territory.
The Federation for Hunting and Conservation Malta argues that spring is the best time of year to enjoy the countryside.
"This is yet another reason why autumn hunting is not a 'satisfactory solution' as a replacement for spring traditional hunting in Malta," the group says on its website.
Mizieb, Girgenti and Delimara are among the main hunting grounds
"Just the weather and the feeling of nature itself, are totally different."
Andre Raine says the sheer concentration of hunters makes some sites "no-go areas" for the public until the season ends on 20 May, and that birdwatchers can get a hostile reception.
Leonard Caruana of Malta's Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Environment says the maximum penalty for hunting protected species has been increased to up to 14,000 euros and two years' imprisonment , and is now one of the toughest in the European Union.
Police, soldiers and environment inspectors are constantly patrolling hunting areas, he says.
But Birdlife Malta says the 27 police and 50 soldiers assigned to the task are unable to keep track of thousands of hunters, while the hunters - sometimes communicating by radio - can easily keep track of the officers of the law.