VALLETTA (AFP) - Thousands of Maltese hunters took to the streets to in celebration Sunday after narrowly winning a referendum on the controversial tradition of spring hunting, in which migrating birds are killed before they can breed.
"I am very, very happy," said a jubilant Diana Abdilla, who was in the streets of central Qormi with her father, brothers and boyfriend - all of them hunters.
"This is a new beginning for hunters. They tried to kill our tradition but the Maltese revived them," she said as crowds of fellow revellers danced to loud music, blasted fog horns and swigged beer.
The issue has stirred passions for years in the island nation, with supporters defending the hunting as a longstanding custom and opponents attacking what they see as a cruel practice that often flouts the law.
Results from Saturday's referendum showed the pro-hunting camp had won by 2,200 votes, with 126,434 votes in favour of keeping the spring hunt alive and 124,214 against.
"We did not win anything, we just did not lose," said hunters' federation president Joe Percici Calascione, although raucous cheering which erupted from hunters at the polling station as the preliminary results came in suggested many saw it as a victory.
"We were fighting for our right to retain the possibility of hunting in spring and people have understood our campaign," he added, appealing to hunters to remain calm amid reports of celebratory gunfire in the countryside.
The European Court of Justice found Malta guilty in 2009 of permitting the hunting of birds during their return from Africa to breeding grounds in Europe, before they have had a chance to reproduce.
But while spring hunting is outlawed by the EU Birds Directive, Malta applies each year for a short period of exemption and shooters are currently legally permitted to slay 11,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail.
Some hunters are accused of exceeding the limit and illegally shooting other birds including swifts, storks and yellow-legged gulls, and activists had said the emphasis must be on protecting all feathered creatures from the gun.
"It seems that the majority has voted for spring hunting to stay," said a disappointed Saviour Balzan, spokesman for the anti-spring hunting campaign. "While we respect the decision, we will continue working for the protection of the environment."
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who voted in favour of keeping the spring hunt, said that the citizens of Malta had given hunters a "last chance" and vowed that illegal hunting "will not be tolerated".
"Hunters must understand how close they came to losing spring hunting, while environmentalists must understand that the public wants more control - not outright abolition," he said.
The next spring hunting season runs from April 14 to April 30.