Malta has voted in a referendum to continue the controversial tradition of spring hunting in which birds migrating across the Mediterranean are killed before they can breed, preliminary results showed Sunday.

The issue has stirred passions for years in the island nation, with supporters defending it as a longstanding custom and opponents attacking what they see as a cruel practice that often flouts the law. Preliminary results from Saturday's referendum suggested the pro-hunting camp had got 51 percent of the vote to win by around 5,000 votes. Official results are expected to be announced late Sunday.

"We did not win anything, we just did not lose," said hunters' federation president, Joe Percici Calascione, although raucous cheering from hunters at the polling station 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".