Birds migrating over the Mediterranean face fire from all directions

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2007:
ATHENS–Moving to protect migratory birds
from some of the most prolifigate hunters in
Europe, the highest Greek administrative court
on November 9, 2007 banned hunting until
November 21 in several of the regions where
wildlife habitat was most severely damaged by
August 2007 wildfires.
The Council of State, as the court is
called, was expected to rule by November 21 on
whether the hunting ban should remain in place
longer. The Greek hunting season normally runs
from August through February, but even if the
ban is not extended, it was widely acclaimed for
supposedly protecting many of the most fragile
European migratory birds during the peak weeks of
their passage over the Mediterranean, Adriatic,
and Agean seas.
Aliki Panagopoulou, projects coordinator
for ARCHELON, the Sea Turtle Protection Society
of Greece, was skeptical.

“The environmental group that petitioned
the court is called, in a liberal translation,
the Animal Friends & Ecological Union of Greece,”
Panagopoulou told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Unfortunately,
the vice-minister for the environment issued a
ministerial decree just a few days later which
effectively reinstated hunting, with few
limitations. Hunting was banned only in the
burned areas, the wild boar killing quota was
limited to two per group of 10 hunters except in
Peloponnesus, where it is one per group,
etcetera. Hunting is prohibited on burned lands,”
Panagopoulou said, “except that there are not
animals to hunt there anyway. They have
retreated to areas left unburned, some of which
can now be seen as nothing but oases. Hunting is
now allowed in these areas–not good at all,
especially in the areas that have suffered the
The August 2007 fires razed 177,265
hectares in Greece altogether–about 72,000
acres. Fires also ravaged parts of Albania,
Serbia, Croatia, and Macedonia. About 56% of
the damage in Greece was to natural habitat, and
41% to agricultural habitat, including olive
orchards, vineyards, and grasslands, according
to a World Wildlife Fund assessment. About a
third of the burnt habitat was within protected
nature areas.
The fires, which killed 67 people in
Greece, “caused severe damage to the habitats of
many species including the golden jackal,
turtles, hedgehogs and lizards,” the World
Wildlife Fund found, but the greatest harm was
to bird habitat.
The Council of State heard testimony that
the fires “led to the disappearance of hundreds
of species, and that hunting should be banned to
‘protect wildlife trying to survive,’ Agence
France-Presse reported.
The Council of State acted two weeks
after the Agricultural Development Ministry
extended the hunting season on the islands of
Lemnos and Lesvos, and authorized jacklighting,
to encourage hunters to kill more rabbits and
boar. Hunters apparently introduced boar to
Lesvos as recently as 2002.

Falcon massacre

Hunters continued to defy the 1979
European Bird Directive elsewhere around the
Mediterranean, most blatantly in Cyprus.
Citrus farmers near Fassouri, Cyprus on
October 10, 2007 discovered the remains of 46
endangered red-footed falcons and six wounded
falcons lying in a tight cluster. The strongest
clue to the identity of the shooter was
reportedly that the 52 falcons were killed and
injured by someone who left just 52 empty shotgun
shells behind.
“The killing of the red-footed falcons
during their migration has prompted particular
anger as the birds have just been reclassified
from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘globally threatened,’
reported Independent correspondent Daniel Howden.
“Globally near-threatened is as bad as it
gets, which makes this one of the worst cases of
illegal bird killings ever reported in Europe,”
said Bird Life Cyprus representative Martin
Hellicar. “To put it in context, the whole
population of Bulgaria could be 50 red-footed
falcons.” Because red-footed falcons nest and
travel in colonies, Hellicar explained, “It is
possible that this wiped out the entire
red-footed falcon population of Bulgaria.”
Summarized Howden, “Cyprus is in the
middle of one of the main migration routes for
birds heading for the African warmth during cold
European winters. Conservationists have been
battling hunters for decades over the right to
shoot or trap birds as they pass over the island.
The Greek-Cypriot government has had regular
run-ins with the European Commission over the
issue,” and earlier in 2007 “received an
official warning from Brussels after Nicosia
sanctioned the spring bird shooting season for
the first time in 14 years.”
The warning came soon after the start of
campaigning for the February 2008 Cypriot
presidential election.
“They are shooting these birds because of
the presidential elections,” alleged Hellicar at
the time to Agence France-Presse.
Explained Agence France-Presse, “The
government has cited a derogation under European
Union law that can permit shooting–for purposes
of population control,” not an issue involving
any of the migratory species passing over Cyprus.
Most heavily targeted were turtle doves.
Between 19,000 and 30,000 turtle doves per year
are shot in Cyprus each fall, when the Bird
Directive allows bird hunting.
Cyprus later agreed to again halt spring
bird hunting. The 2008 spring bird migration
will begin after the elections.
There are about 50,000 bird hunters in
Cyprus, but just 100 members of Bird Life
Cyprus, Mike Sergeant of BBC News reported in
October 2007 from Larnaca, Cyprus– and
shotguns are scarcely the hunters’ only weapons.
Sergeant readily found hunters who showed him how
to trap birds with nets and with lime-coated
pomegranite branches.
“In the past decade, Cyprus has made
dramatic progress in reducing illegal hunting and
trapping. Spurred on by European Union
membership,” achieved in 2004, “the authorities
reduced the number of wild birds being killed
from several million a year to a few hundred
thousand,” Sergeant said.
But bird trappers “are inventing ways to
avoid the police,” police inspector Lakis
Kousionous told Sergeant. “They have spotters,
they have mobile phones. It is difficult to
catch them, and you cannot prosecute unless you
find them doing the offense.”
Most of the trapped birds reputedly are
made into a dish called ambelopouli.
“The illegal delicacy, consisting of whole
pickled robins and a similar-sized warbler called
the black cap, has been in danger of
disappearing from the clandestine menus of rural
restaurants,” Independent correspondent Cahal
Milmo reported in 2005.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had
funded a crackdown on bird trapping that brought
the arrests of 43 trappers in the
British-administered portion of Cyprus.
Successful bird trappers make about £30,000
during each migration, Milmo estimated–more
than $60,000 U.S.
Malta warned
A week after the falcon killing on
Cyprus, the European Commission reiterated
warnings to Malta that it must stop allowing
hunters to kill quail and turtle doves during the
spring mating season.
European Union environment commissioner Stavros
Dimas “said the Maltese could continue to hunt
the birds in the autumn,” reported Associated
Press, “but targeting them during the spring
migration when they fly north from Africa to
Europe is putting the species at risk.
“Malta already bowed to EU pressure this spring
by cutting short the turtle dove hunting season.
Upset hunters and trappers were blamed for acts
of vandalism in and around a bird reserve,” said
Associated Press.
Dimas’ statements responded to appeals from
Nature Trust (Malta) and International Animal
Rescue Malta for the European Union to clarify
conflicting claims from the EU and the Maltese
government about agreements reached about bird
hunting when Malta was admitted to the EU.
The 1979 Birds Directive does not allow birds to
be trapped during spring migrations, but Maltese
hunters asserted that they had been granted
exemptions for killing as many as seven species.
“European Union law is at last catching up with a
killing frenzy that has virtually no parallel on
the continent,” wrote Independ-ent environment
editor Michael McCarthy. “Every year scarcely
believable numbers of thrushes, robins, larks,
swallows, turtle doves and many other species,
including birds of prey, are shot as they try to
use the island, situated between Sicily and
Tunisia, as a staging-post in their
Mediterranean crossing from Africa to Europe, and
back again. Anything that flies is considered
fair game.
“Some estimates of birds killed annually put the
full toll at roughly two million birds,”
McCarthy wrote, “while thousands more
songbirds, especially finches, are caught for
the caged bird trade. The annual massacre is
thought to significantly contribute to the 70%
plunge in numbers of turtle doves nesting in
Europe in the last 25 years.”
Malta issued a set of “Conservation of Wild Birds
Regulations” in 2006, but has yet to implement
them in compliance with the E.U. Birds Directive.
Malta is also reputedly a conduit for
trafficking in poached birds and other wildlife
from Africa. More than 500 skins of birds
including eagles, ducks, egrets, and a
kingfisher were found in just four abandoned
suitcases at the Malta International Airport in
January 2005, along with the pelts of foxes, an
Egyptian mongoose, and a jungle cat. The
suitcases were in transit from Cairo, Egypt.
BirdLife Malta president Joseph Mangion told
media at the time that he hoped the discovery
would increase official attention to interdicting
poaching and trafficking–but there is little
sign that it did.
About 16,800 bird hunters and trappers make up
approximately 4.2% of the Maltese human
population of about 400,000–but the bird hunters
and trappers are politically organized, while
opponents of bird hunting and trapping are not.

Spain, France, Italy

The value of political mobilization
against traditional wildlife massacres was
illustrated in Catalan, Spain during October
2007. Public protest obliged the Catalan
government to back quickly away from an attempt
to legalize netting birds around water sources
and capturing them with glue-coated branches.
Both methods are forbidden by the
European Union Bird Directive, but meaningfully
enforcing the Bird Directive has proved
difficult. Both France and Italy have repeatedly
violated the Bird Directive with virtual impunity
almost since it was adopted.
France, for example, in July 2005
opened duck hunting three weeks earlier than
allowed. “The government was accused by animal
rights activists of making a backroom deal with
France’s 1.5 million hunters in return for
support for its failed attempt to ratify the E.U.
constitution,” reported Alex Duval Smith of The
Independent. “The move was seen as the second
sop to the hunting lobby,” Duval wrote, “after
claims from the French bird protection league,
the Ligue Pour La Protection des Oiseaux, that
France was alone in Europe in extending the
deadline” for enforcing a ban on the use of lead
The European Union Council of Ministers
in 1995 agreed that member nations would abolish
the use of lead shot in wetlands by 2000.
Britain complied in 1999, while the Netherlands
and Denmark banned lead shot entirely. But
French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
allowed French hunters to continue using lead
shot until July 2006.
Julian Pettifer of BBC Radio 4’s Crossing
Continents program meanwhile detailed the
frustrations of the Lega Italiana Protezione
Uccelli in attempts to stop illegal bird shooting
and trapping.
“In the Breschia valleys,” Pettifer
recounted, “the LIPU has confiscated more than
50,000 traps set to capture robins and other
small birds. In recent years, 600 mist nets have
also been removed, and 6,000 trapped birds have
been freed.”
But “One of the problems with law
enforcement in Italy is that no fewer than five
different police forces are supposed to regulate
hunting,” Pettifer added. “General Fernando
Fuschetti of the Forestry Police took me to a
wetland near Naples where his men had raided and
shut down a string of 10 hunting ponds,” which
had allegedly been operated by an organized crime
“While the general was very proud of what
he regarded as a victory for law enforcement,”
Pettifer continued, “another police officer I
spoke to–from a different force–was highly
critical of what he regarded an assault on a
revered local institution.”

Bad habits spread

In recent years the use of lime trapping
to catch birds has even made a comeback in
Britain and Scotland, where it was believed to
have been mostly abolished generations ago.
Haddington Sheriff Peter Gilliam on
November 10, 2007 fined William White, 60,
£750 and barred him from keeping birds for five
years, after Scottish SPCA undercover officers
caught him in possession of four dead linnets,
three live linnets, lime sticks, and a pot of
glue, and found at least four more live
wild-caught birds at White’s home. White claimed
through counsel that he had bred songbirds for 50
years, and wanted the linnets to hybridize with
his captive-bred canaries.
Crimes against wild birds in the United
Kingdom increased from 726 incidents in 2005 to
1,109 in 2006, according to the Royal Society
for the Protection of Birds. The most frequent
reported offenses were shooting, poisoning,
trapping, and nest destruction.
“We always thought it was one old guy
here or a young bloke there who were taking birds
for their own collections, but it appears there
is actually a thriving market for birds caught
here and taken south or abroad,” a Scottish SPCA
undercover investigator told Independent Scotland
writer Paul Kelbie.
“It’s a U.K.-wide thing,” the Scottish
SPCA investigator continued. “It is bigger than
we have dealt with before. It has certainly
surprised us. Considering it is possible to
catch these birds easily, if you know what you
are doing, it is money for nothing. It also
doesn’t carry the same stigma other ‘substances’
do. Appearing in court charged with dealing in a
dodgy finch is not going to have the same
drawbacks to being caught as dealing in drugs.”

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