It is mentioned in the Old Testament’s Song of Songs, as well as being one of the gifts in the carol the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the turtle dove, a symbol of true love and fidelity for Chaucer and Shakespeare, is likely to become extinct within a decade in Britain, where the population has crashed by 95% since the turn of the century. Another seemingly eternal feature of the British countryside that is fast disappearing is the cuckoo, which has halved in numbers over the same period.

Though changing farming patterns and use of pesticides are no doubt factors in the decline of these much-loved birds, these species are also quarry for hunters in Malta. These small islands lie on the central Mediterranean flyway, one of three major migration routes between Africa and Europe, which sees thousands of birds returning in the spring to breed—if they can get past the Maltese shotguns. At more than 10,000, the country has the highest density of hunters in the world: 80 per square kilometre.

Whereas they were once trapped and shot for food, the 384 species that migrate over Malta are now hunted for sport. This is despite the European Court of Justice finding Malta guilty of breaking the EU wild birds directivefrom 2004-07 by allowing spring hunting, despite the increased efforts of the Maltese government and police to curb illegal shooting, and despite the opposition of 44,000 islanders who signed a petition calling for a referendum on the practice. To the despair of many environmentalists, Malta negotiated a derogation, or exemption, from EU hunting laws to allow turtle doves to remain legal prey. The local conservation body, BirdLife Malta, has noted that the law firm of Emmanuel Mallia, minister for home affairs, is acting for the hunting lobby group FKNK (Association of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists) and is calling for allegations of conflicts of interest and collusion between the police and the FKNK to be investigated. This year the British naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham made a series of films from Malta to highlight the avian slaughter. Under the headline Massacre on Migration, he found that at least 24 species of rare protected birds were illegally shot last year, including three types of harrier, cuckoos, bee-eaters and orioles. Some of these, such as ospreys, are species that elsewhere in Europe have had millions of euros spent on helping their numbers recover. The ‘Maltese falcon’, a unique sub-species of the peregrine, has been driven to extinction since the 1960s in the archipelago that gave it its name. Even conservationists have been shot as they monitor the spring shoot (one activist describes how he has been shot in the head and had his house burnt down by resentful hunters).

In response, the Maltese government attacked the ‘hypocrisy’ of countries such as Britain, where hunting of different species is just as entrenched in the psyche of many, criticising it for its own traditions and arguing that it had done much to improve the situation. Sergei Golovkin, head of the Malta’s wild-bird regulation unit, said it had introduced a €5,000 ($7,000) fine and up to a year in prison for shooting protected species. Deploying two drones and 70 enforcement officers to check hunters’ licences and bags, he said, ‘shows that we are prepared to really demonstrate that our system of checks and balances is sustainable and credible.’

But, as Packham points out, the hunters’ hides that dot the Maltese countryside could so easily be used by ornithologists who would flock to the islands for birdwatching holidays.

Unfortunately, shooting endangered birds is far from Malta’s most pressing image problem. The foreign minister,George Vella, has complained about the difficulties of defending Malta’s archaic and inhumane abortion laws (it is the only EU country that does not even allow abortion to save the mother’s life). And a report on human rights by the US state department criticised the government’s treatment of detained migrants and asylum-seekers from North Africa (although the 20,000 or so migrants it has received this decade is the equivalent in Britain of 2.5 million people arriving).

But the furore over the hunting will only increase and it is unfortunate that as Malta prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next year the island nation may well become better known for what it does to small birds than for its role on the world stage.