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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
EU welcomes Malta bird reprieve
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News

honey buzzard
The honey buzzard is larger than the common buzzard

The European Commission has welcomed Malta's decision to end its spring hunt early, after the killing of a flock of honey buzzards.

The protected birds were shot last week as they rested on the island during their migration from Africa to Europe.

The EU has threatened Malta with legal action for allowing hunting in spring.

Hunters had been given until 20 May to shoot migrating turtle doves, but the government closed the season early because of attacks on other species.

'Systematic' shooting

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the Commission hoped that Malta's early end to the spring hunt "indicates recognition of their obligations under EU law and that spring hunting in future years will not be permitted".

"The prohibition of hunting is crucial at this time in order to allow birds to complete their migration and breed successfully," he said.

Maltese Environment Minister George Pullicino, who announced the early closure of the season last week, said the government would "wait and see" about spring hunting next year.

Dr Andre Raine of Birdlife Malta said the government had been spurred into action by an incident that demonstrated it could not control the level of illegal hunting.

"Five hundred honey buzzards tried to roost but they were systematically hunted down and shot - 100 were shot in the course of an hour or so," he said.

Some of the birds flew right over the island, but about 150 descended on the centre of the island, and became targets for the hunters, he said.

The incident occurred a day after an overnight attack on Malta's largest afforestation project.

Dr Raine said 3,000 pine saplings, planted as shelter for migrating birds, had been uprooted or chopped in half in one night.

Cyprus hunt

Until last week, Malta was the only European Union country which allowed a spring hunt.

However, Cyprus gave hunters permission to hunt turtle doves for two days last week, for the first time since 1993.

Nicola Crockford, European wildlife treaties officer for the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said reports after the first day of shooting in Cyprus, on 6 May, suggested that many hunters deliberately chose not to take part.

"A lot of them seem to be quite responsible," she said, citing polls that indicated a majority of hunters objected to the idea of hunting in spring.

Most birds shot in Cyprus were eaten, she said, whereas Maltese hunters acted out of "machismo" and often displayed stuffed birds in their homes.

The European Commission argues that Malta's spring hunt violates the EU Birds Directive, because the two species hunters are given permission to shoot - turtle doves and quails - could easily be hunted in autumn after they have bred.

It began infringement proceedings last year.

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