VALLETTA (Reuters) - Hunters on the Mediterranean island of Malta have won a referendum to let them continue to hunt migrating birds in spring, a centuries-old tradition not allowed anywhere else in the European Union.
The referendum on Saturday was called by environmentalists who wanted to end an EU exception that allows hunters to shoot turtle doves and quail for 20 days between April and May, a time when the birds fly north to breed after wintering in Africa.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who had backed the hunters, said on Sunday they had won about 51 percent of the vote. He warned the hunting laws would be applied strictly and anyone who violated them would be punished.
Critics of the hunt conceded defeat and said they would continue to work in favor of the environment.
Malta is the only country in the EU that allows the hunting of turtle dove and quail during spring as the birds head north to breed.
Environmentalists argued that the spring hunting season, before the birds could breed, endangered the two species. But the hunters insisted on continuing the EU exception, which was negotiated as part of Malta's entry into the bloc 10 years ago.
(Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Tom Heneghan)