Nearly all the protected birds in a state-sponsored tracking programme died within days of their release, according to the international suppliers of the monitoring equipment.

However, the hunters’ federation, FKNK, which ran the project, yesterday vehemently denied the claim.

In March, the FKNK was given a €14,000 public cash grant to release and monitor turtle doves bred in captivity.

It is part of a programme that has seen 1,450 birds being released in recent years.

FKNK is trying to collect data on the protected species to support their bid to hunt turtle doves despite their status as protected birds across the European Union.

Under the agreement with the Foundation for Responsible Gaming, solar-powered GPS transmitters were attached to six of the birds that were among the latest group to be released, between May and the first week of June.

A spokesman for Interrex, the EU suppliers of the tracking devices, said that, just a few days after they were fitted with equipment and released into the wild, five of the six birds showed no signs of life. 

“They bought and put on six transmitters. Five of them indicated that the birds were dead after a few days. They retrieved one transmitter and put it back on another bird. 

“Two transmitters are currently active,” the company spokesman said in correspondence with Times of Malta. 

It is not known whether the birds, bred in captivity, were shot over Malta after their release.

When contacted, a spokesman for the hunting lobby strongly denied the claims. He insisted that all of the trackers were active and that none of the birds had died.

The FKNK declined to provide Times of Malta access to the tracking data, saying it would make public statements at its “sole discretion”.

Neither did the federation provide a breakdown of how the €14,000 government grant had been spent. 

The EU suppliers said the FKNK had purchased six trackers at a total cost of €5,460.

The federation said that the company was making false claims. To back up its argument, it said it had purchased eight trackers and not six as was being claimed by the suppliers. It later conceded that it had returned two of the original eight when they encountered problems with them on delivery.

Meanwhile, a senior government source said that when he contacted the FKNK about the matter he had been told that not all the birds were marked as alive on their system.

Interrex also claimed it had been duped by the FKNK. The tracking equipment suppliers said that when ordering the transmitters, the hunting federation told them that the devices would be placed on fieldfare, a much smaller and far more common bird that is not subject to any conservation measures. 

Responding to comments on its social media page after the initial release of the birds, the company had said it was “very likely” that all the birds would soon end up dead. 

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri had presided over the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the FKNK through which they were handed the €14,000.

At the time, the minister had said that he appreciated “the work FKNK are doing to conserve an activity which has been part of Maltese tradition for years”.

Contacted earlier this week, Schembri said the funding followed all the appropriate channels through the foundation.

FKNK said it was prepared to take legal action if the company were to persist in its claims.

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