VALLETTA, March 6 (Xinhua) -- The Maltese government announced on Tuesday that the local spring hunting season will be opened for quail only, for 20 days between April 1 and April 21.
Last year, the season was opened earlier between March 25 and April 14. Bird hunting is a very popular practice in Malta. With approximately 15,000 hunters, it contains the highest density of hunters per capita in all of Europe.
The eNGO BirdLife Malta described the decision as a "gamble not worth taking".
Last month, the Ornis Committee -- tasked with advising the government on hunting and the conservation of wild birds -- recommended a spring hunting season between April 5 and April 25.
The recommended season coincides with peak migration of turtle dove -- a protected species in Malta.
In a statement on Tuesday, Malta's Environment Ministry said the season would be opened from two hours before sunrise until noon.
The national hunting bag limit is at 5,000 quails, with a daily bag limit of five quails per hunter, capped at 10 for the whole season.
Hunters are obliged to register their catch by phoning a telephone number.
The ministry also reminded hunters that a moratorium on hunting of turtle dove in spring was "still in place", meaning their killing is prohibited.
"Any shooting of turtle doves or any species other than quail is strictly prohibited and anyone caught breaking the law will be subject to criminal procedures and high penalties," it said in the statement.
"The limited spring hunting season will be subject to stringent enforcement, including spot-checks. Any non-compliance with applicable conditions and regulations will not be tolerated."
The Maltese government has faced harsh criticism over a perceived lack of enforcement during the last hunting season, with the number of illegal birds shot each year increasing once again after a period of decline.
"The government is aware that without proper enforcement across Malta and Gozo, it is opening itself to infringements procedures from the EU Commission," said BirdLife.
The eNGO said it was concerned hunters were already preparing hides specifically used for Turtle Dove hunting.
It reminded the government it had an obligation to the wider public to protect the environment and that it would monitor the season for legalities.
EU Members of Parliament had expressed their concern regarding bird hunting in Malta, urging the Maltese government to close the spring hunt on migratory birds.
According to some nature conservation organizations, more than 100,000 birds are killed in Malta every year.