Friday, 27 May 2005

Persecution of European birds

Migrant birds have traditionally been killed in large numbers in a number of Mediterranean countries. However, what was once a traditional pastime carried out on a small scale has now escalated to become a major industry, with hunters employing an array of equipment and techniques (like mist nets, tapes lures and "liming" - covering twigs where migrants alight in a sticky glue) to harvest vast numbers of birds. Thus the number of birds caught is increasing year-on-year and is now estimated to be in the region of half a billion individuals in the Mediterranean region. This number represents a significant proportion of the total number of migrants.

One of the most extreme cases is in Malta where it is well known that the authorities make little attempt to enforce hunting laws. Millions of birds are killed on their annual migration through the country, many illegally (cf newspaper articles on Malta Tourist Action website). Whilst the populations of native breeders have been badly hit (last pair of Maltese Falcons shot dead in 1982) it is migrants which use the island which are of most concern. Migrant raptors (bird of prey) rely on thermals from warm ground and cannot easily cross large water bodies. Thus, thousands are channelled over the Maltese islands where they come under indiscriminate fire from shooters. So whilst Ospreys are being conserved and protected in places like Scotland (and recently at Rutland Water in England) they are subsequently shot on their migration to their wintering grounds in Africa.

The Maltese hunters are also renowned for cruelty to birds, with liming used to catch songbirds and birds used as lures often confined in tiny cages. For example, a consignment of 600 greenfinches was recently found dead at the airport, in 4 suitcases, see the Birdlife site.

This quote from the diary of a volunteer at an anti-poaching camp gives a feeling for what goes on there:

"Day three (pm): went to Catona, a suberb of Reggio di Calabria, renowned for its high density of poachers and Mafia activities. Four of us stood in a lay-by, watching the sun set behind Sicily and counting 22 Honey Buzzards flying low and slow towards us ... a hundred shots pierced the air all around us and I felt desolation and unspeakable anger amidst this deafening, relentless nightmare. After seven long minutes we counted just five surviving birds rising up the ridge behind Catona..."

Massacre of Honey Buzzards - purely for sporting purposes - has continued through the early years of the 21st century, despite the fact that Malta is about to enter the EU and has accepted preconditions to do with reducing illegal persecution. For example, on 10 May 2002 Malta witnessed the largest ever recorded migration of honey buzzard with several flocks of 300 seen and an estimated 2000 individuals in total. Maltese hunters opened fire on the migrants indiscriminately across the islands, gunning down hundreds. Dead and injured were found throughout the islands. The police unit charged with law enforcement (the bird is "officially protected") had a single car at its disposal and was clearly overwhelmed in the face of such a widespread problem.

Again in April 2004, large numbers of Honey Buzzards were killed, see this online article.

In May 2005, just after the inspection of the EU Commissioners, there is no change: "A heavy passage of honey buzzards were seen flying inland from the south against the strong northwest wind last Friday (9 May). Some 200 honey buzzards were seen in small parties at Xrobb l-Ghagin and practically all were shot." Overall, this remains an ongoing international disgrace and is totally unacceptable.

Cyprus is perhaps just as bad, and getting worse year on year. Melis Charalambides of the Cyprus Ornithological Society estimated that c. 20 million birds were trapped or shot on the island in 2000. Most of these (c. 12-15 million) are fully protected species. Furthermore, they were killed by-and-large using sophisticated and illegal methods by organised teams of criminals for the local and international delicacy market (estimated to be worth £20 million).

An example of the state-of-affairs there is highlighted by the events reported by two well-known birder-watchers from NE Scotland last year (cf December issue of Bird watching magazine, pp. 15-16 and Scottish Bird News No 61, March 2001). These men received rough treatment and were threatened by hunters while photographing the bird harvest. Thereafter they were questioned by police (who informed them that they liked to eat the trapped migrants!), not about the illegal trapping, but over allegations that they were 'spying' and their hotel room was searched. This followed another birder being beaten up and a bomb attack on a bird hide.

The fact of the matter is that many in authority are clearly in collusion with the powerful hunting lobby, with support/financial backing of the hunting industry. Species such as blackcaps can fetch up to £1.50 each for the pot, so bird harvesting is big business. From a legal point of view, experience has shown that hunting legislation is barely worth the paper it is written on. Even France has openly flouted the EU Birds Directive by extending the hunting season two months more than advised, ignoring a petition signed by more than 2 million people which was supported by 520+ conservation groups. In other EU countries, such as Italy, the hunting lobby are putting forward declarations via MEP's (e.g. the Ebner Declaration) in attempts to weaken the protection given to migratory birds.

Thus there are no simple answers to these issues. Some conservationists are campaigning on the basis that the entry of Cyprus and Malta to the EU should be blocked unless they introduce and enforce effective hunting laws, whilst others maintain the opposite reasoning that there will be a great improvement if they do join and become subject to the EU laws. Tourism boycotts are generally not supported by conservation bodies as most believe that the revenue earning potential from eco-tourists could be one of the most effective levers for change. Thus they encourage people to travel, making clear to locals why they have come. Perhaps the best long-term hope is education programmes for young people.

European campaigns are being mounted to apply pressure on the relevant authorities. To read more information and/or join these campaigns, see for instance the Proact website, Malta Tourist Action website, the Italian League for Bird Preservation and the RSPB Cyprus information page. In addition, the "Keep birds free" campaign against the illegal trade in wild birds in East Africa is now being run by Proact associates.

Nearer to home, rare and beautiful birds of prey are being poisoned in the Scottish mountains by keepers intent on boosting the game bag. I myself have seen poisoned eggs laid out and dead birds (normally crows) which have suffered the consequences, but securing proof of wrong-doing in such cases is extremely difficult. In rare cases where convictions are brought, penalties are generally insignificant (e.g. a fine of £300 for possession of 1000 clutches of eggs including golden eagle and osprey). The Scottish Ornithologists' Club, of which I am a member, is one organisation campaigning for the effective protection of our native birds of prey. The Scottish Bird News magazine reports poisoning incidents, including dozens of poisoned birds of prey annually, e.g. 4 red kites in both 1997 and 1998 and three golden eagles in 1999. The latest issue reports 5 kites poisoned on or next to sporting estates in the last 12 months (up to June 2001). One successful prosecution is also reported, that of Douglas Ross, a gamekeeper at Craigmill, Knockando estate who was videoed shooting a fledgling hen harrier near its nest. Ross was fined £2000 and allowed to keep his job. It is to be hoped that tougher penalties will be introduced.

Another major issue here is 'egg-collecting'. In 1999 there were 231 confirmed nest robberies, with most being egg robberies. These included four golden eagles, three common scoters, two ospreys, 57 little terns, 33 avocets, 14 peregrines, two Slavonian grebes, and one each of merlin, hen harrier, red kite, stone-curlew and chough. More information about these matters and other issuing regarding persceution of wild birds is given on the RSPB website.