Ortolan Bunting off the menu in France?


The French Minister of Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, has committed to ending the large-scale trapping of Ortolan Buntings for food.

The trapping takes place to meet demand for a cruel dish where the bunting is blinded, fattened and drowned in brandy. It's a practice that has helped drive population declines of up to 84 per cent in Europe since 1980.

Ortolan is a dish savoured with an almost ritualistic relish in France. Custom dictates that the diner eats the bird while wearing a napkin over his or her head, allegedly to ensure the rich aromas do not escape while the gourmand chews the bird, bones and all, a process that lasts for several minutes. This ritual may have arisen because eating the dish is a messy business, but others might say it arose out of shame.

The process of delivering the bird from perch to palate is a gruesome affair. Around 30,000 Ortolan Buntings are captured every year during autumn migration, as their flightpath from northern and eastern Europe to West Africa takes them through France, and in particular Landes, a poaching hot-spot in the south-west of the country. There, songbirds are trapped in huge numbers, either in nets or, in Provence, by getting snared in glue smeared on the branches of their favoured trees.

BirdLife International estimates around 500,000 protected passerines are illegally caught every year in France. Chaffinch and Brambling are also targets for poachers, and many other species such as Goldfinch become collateral victims in the annual slaughter.

Many birds meet their end in the field, but the fate awaiting Ortolans is even worse. Under the guise of tradition, the buntings are blinded to disrupt their feeding and kept in tiny cages, where they are force-fed to increase their fat reserves before being drowned in brandy, roasted and served.

While Ortolan Bunting is listed as Least Concern by BirdLife because of its vast range (it is found throughout Europe and Central Asia), the history of Passenger Pigeon and Yellow-breasted Bunting should make conservationists very wary of complacency. Indeed, no other European passerine has plummeted in numbers as rapidly in recent years, with an overall decline of 84 per cent since 1980 despite hunting of the species being forbidden by French law since 1999. However, because the Ortolan dish is considered a cultural tradition, authorities are often keen to turn a blind eye to the activities of poachers.

For the past 10 years, LPO (the BirdLife partner in France) has been fighting this illegal practice on the ground. But there is also an airborne strategy, where conservationists have been identifying trapping sites from the air and then releasing the birds alongside CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) members, before alerting the authorities. Until recently, LPO’s interventions were the only way to identify and prosecute the poachers, who operated with the blessing of local elected officials and hunting leaders. Local authorities have previously refuse to file charges for installations of 30 traps or fewer.

However, the tide is turning. For the last two years, France’s national agency for hunting and wildlife (ONCFS) has been conducting inspections, strengthening LPO’s work and raised hopes that cases against hunters will be pursued instead of shelved. LPO has repeatedly provided the European Commission with evidence that the French government has done little to combat the capturing and killing of wild birds, and in December 2016 the European Commission announced that it was taking France to the European Court of Justice for failing to address violations of the EU Birds Directive, with a potential fine running into millions of euros.

Then, last month, the French Minister of Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, stated his intentions to put a definitive end to the poaching of Ortolan Bunting in Landes. He explained: “Preserving biodiversity is essential to the future of our humanity, and it is the protection of a natural heritage that we have received as a legacy and that we must pass on to future generations for ethical as well as scientific reasons.”

"The practice of poaching Ortolans is illegal, it must stop ... it poses a significant risk to the survival of the species, while the natural environment of this bird is threatened by climate change and urbanisation which destroys its habitat."

Hulot’s announcement came as LPO was readying its tour of the Landes department to denounce the poaching of France’s songbirds. “LPO has been struggling for years against trapping and every type of illegal killing of birds in France,” said Bernard Deceuninck, Head of International & Overseas Service at LPO. “We have won a major battle against bird crime, but we still have a lot to do because the Birds Directive need a proper implementation on the field, including stricter controls of every type of so-called 'traditional' hunting and trapping.”

Nonetheless, Hulot’s announcement represents a big step for bird conservation in France. LPO expects that the state must eventually put an end to the non-selective trapping of all birds, but that the government is beginning the crackdown with the Ortolan Bunting should leave a sweet taste in the mouth of conservationists worldwide.