Hunters try to block referendum on traditional spring shoot, while British volunteers help patrol countryside to protect birds
The Guardian, Sunday 20 April 2014 17.41 BST
As dawn breaks over the sea and ancient stone churches turn pink, the morning's stillness is broken by volleys of gunfire. Tucked behind walls, sitting on armchairs in specially built turrets or else popping up from old stone sheds, Malta's marksmen open fire as migrating birds flap desperately for cover.
When it comes to bird hunts, this is one of Europe's more uneven contests. Birds flying over the islands of Malta on their annual migration to northern Europe must evade 31 licensed marksmen per square kilometre – 15 times more than in shooting-friendly France. On one day in 2013, more than 9,000 shots were logged by a conservation charity's observers.
Spring hunting is banned by the EU but the Maltese authorities obtain a exemption each year, enabling its 9,798 hunters to shoot 5,000 quail and 11,000 turtle doves, the latter a migratory bird whose British population has slumped by 95% since 1970.
But now a backlash is being felt. More than 44,000 Maltese citizens have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the traditional spring shoot.
And a flock of celebrity naturalists including Brian May, Chris Packham and Bill Oddie have swooped in, joining mostly British and Dutch volunteers patrolling the countryside at 5am each morning to monitor illegal shooting for the charity BirdLife Malta.
Packham will broadcast his confrontations with hunters on YouTube every day this week.