22/09/2014
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French take direct action for Ortolans

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French conservationists have taken the law into their own hands to liberate illegally trapped Ortolan Buntings, after their government appears unable to prevent poaching of the species. Photo: Andrej Chudy (commons.wikimedia.org).
French conservationists have taken the law into their own hands to liberate illegally trapped Ortolan Buntings, after their government appears unable to prevent poaching of the species. Photo: Andrej Chudy (commons.wikimedia.org).
BirdLife in France has taken to freeing Ortolan Buntings from poachers' traps again, after the French government has done little to prevent illegal trapping.

Every year in France, thousands of Ortolan Buntings are poached, mutilated and killed in breach of EU and national laws. On Thursday 4 September, the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO, BirdLife in France) members went on the offensive, to liberate captured birds and make formal accusations against poachers to the French authorities.

Ortolan Bunting, is a migratory songbird, the hunting of which is forbidden by law in Europe. However, as previously reported Birdwatch, it is regarded as a delicacy by French gourmets and trapped illegally for the pot. During stop-overs in France along their migratory route, the birds are poached in particularly large numbers by hunters in Landes, in the south-west of France, at the end of the summer.

Supporters of this tradition regard it as emblematic of a local culture with little consequence. Over the 30 last years, the species' European population has seen a notable decline, although it is still classed as 'Least Concern' by BirdLife.

In France, however, it is particularly threatened: its population now numbers less than 15,000 pairs, having decreased 42 per cent over the past 11 years. A key reason for this is believed to be poaching, which at one time was responsible for the disappearance of 50,000 individuals per year, the equivalent to 10 times the species' current population in Germany, Belgium or The Netherlands.

Ortolan Bunting has been protected in France since 1999, meaning that its killing, transportation, use, sale or purchase is strictly forbidden; violations of this law are subject to fines of €15,000.  And yet, between 10,000 and 30,000 Ortolan Buntings continue to be trapped, spoiling the conservation efforts undertaken by the EU to reverse the decline of the species.

To draw attention to the situation and urge the French authorities to take decisive action, the LPO launched a sudden strike on 4 September. At 7 am, conservationists descended on poaching locations to free caged live decoy Ortolans, which serve as bait to attract the wild birds. The birds, which had been mutilated, were then presented to the French authorities.
Last year, the LPO alerted the European Commission to the situation in France. The Commission responded by sending a formal notice to the French government, requiring it to comply promptly with its obligations under Article 5 of the Birds Directive. The LPO intends to inform the European Commission of the location of any poaching facilities throughout the season, so that sanctions can be taken against France for infringing the legislation.

Traditionally, a live decoy Ortolan is placed in a small fenced cage to attract wild individuals with its chirping. When a bird approaches the trap, it is captured. It will then be fed for at least three weeks until it is considered fat enough to eat. Once it reaches a certain weight, the unfortunate bird is then drowned in Armagnac, before being eaten or sold. In France, the price for such a 'delicacy' easily reaches €150. Despite its illegality, some of the finest restaurants still offer it on their menus, and only last week four famous French chefs asked for an exemption to serve the species in their restaurants (potentially including one in London).
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