Turtle doves are the main target of hunters during spring hunting, despite the bird having a protected status, Birdlife Malta said on Saturday. 

In a statement, the NGO said that with first sign of turtle dove migration, it had already confirmed one such bird had been illegally shot down.

"With more and more turtle doves arriving through in the next days, and the
peak migration of this bird yet to come in the last week of April, this proves
once again that the Maltese government has purposely created a
smokescreen for the illegal killing of the turtle dove whose status is today
classified as a vulnerable species," Birdlife said.

This was also one of the main points highlighted in a letter the NGO has sent to
European Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius, asking
for action to be taken on "this blatant abuse of the EU Birds Directive".

The season was "purposely opened" during the peak migration of the turtle dove rather than earlier when enough quail migrates for the quota of 5,000 birds to be reached, Birdlife said in its letter to the Commissioner. 

It also highlighted the fact that there is "no justification for the spring
hunting season".

"The government of Malta is stating that the numbers of quail caught in autumn 2019 were not sufficient and hence a spring hunting season should be allowed. BirdLife Malta however highlighted the fact that from 10,615 hunters only 294 declared catching any of the 40 different bird species in five months of the autumn hunting season.

“It is high time that the European Commission stops the Maltese government from taking it for a ride and takes a clear stance that it will not tolerate such flouting of European law."

The NGO said it had also sent the letter to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 

Apart from the turtle dove, Birdlife said that, together with the police, in recent days it also recovered two marsh harriers, a little egret and an Italian-ringed yellow-legged gull that hatched in Sicily last year. This brought the total of illegally hunted protected birds since the spring hunting season kicked off last week to 10. 

The government's decision to open the spring hunting season this year was met with harsh criticism that this was not the right time for hunters to be out and about given the coronavirus outbreak. Many questioned whether the police had enough resources to both monitor hunters as well as carry out COVID-19-related duties. 

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