‘The fight goes on’: the struggle to save Europe’s songbirds


“Chasse à la glu has ended, but the fight to save other birds is not over,” says campaigner Yves Verilhac. “We are now battling to stop other cruel hunting methods that lead to the killing of skylarks, lapwings, golden plovers, thrushes and blackbirds.”

Two years ago, Verilhac, of France’s Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), was fighting to stop the French tradition of chasse à la glu – hunting songbirds with twigs and branches covered in adhesive.

They’ve been fighting this to the end. We won on glue trapping, but have wasted time and energy

La chasse à la glu had been banned in the EU by a 1979 bird directive, except in special circumstances where it had to be “controlled, selective and [done] in limited quantities”. Since 1989, France had invoked these circumstances to permit glue-trapping in five south-east departments on the grounds that it was traditional.

Today, Verilhac and other campaigners are celebrating a rare victory. This year, facing legal action initiated by the European Commission and possible fines, the French government announced glue-trap hunting would be definitively banned.

The fight to save endangered bird species goes on, however.

“Of the 64 species of bird hunted in France, at least 20 are on the danger list,” says Verilhac. “We have succeeded in suspending hunting of only three species: turtledoves, curlews and the black-tailed godwit.”

The LPO says France continues to kill millions of birds every year. Some of the “traditional” methods used involve huge nets, wire nooses that strangle the birds, or traps that crush the birds with stones. As it did for decades with chasse à la glu, the French government has allowed exemptions from the EU directive.

A hunters’ protest in Toulon. Millions of birds are killed in France every year by ‘traditional’ methods, using nets, wire nooses or traps. Photograph: Laurent Coust/SOPA Images/Rex/Shutterstock

However, after a legal challenge by conservationists, the state council, France’s highest court, suspended these methods temporarily, despite protests by the country’s powerful hunting lobby and an attempt by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to reinstate licences. The LPO wants a permanent ban on these hunting methods and so, it appears, does Europe; Verilhac produced a letter from EU commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius advising the French government it is on its last warning over this issue before being hauled before the European court of justice.

France is not the only country in Europe that sees hunters decimate bird populations. It is estimated that between 11 million and 36 million birds are illegally killed or taken in Mediterranean countries every year, many of them while migrating. More than 5 million birds are believed to be illegally hunted every year in Italy; in October, Italian hunters were found in Norway with 2,000 dead thrushes. Verilhac says French hunters are now travelling to Morocco to hunt turtledoves, where each hunter is allowed to kill 50 a day.

The battle over France’s love of hunting, in all its forms, is proving to be a key issue in the run-up to next April’s presidential election. There are up to 1.2 million hunters in France who, along with their supporters and families, could make up a pool of 5 million voters.

Willy Schraen, president of the French Fédération Nationale des Chasseurs (national hunters’ federation), has been doing the rounds of television studios to explain the “passion” involved in hunting. Schraen readily admits he does not hunt to control animal numbers – farmers frequently lament wild boar destroying their crops, for example – but for pleasure. He has said he would not turn down a ministerial job in charge of “rurality and agriculture”.

But after a spate of shooting accidents in recent years – about 20 people have been killed and dozens more injured – a recent Ifop poll revealed that 70% of those surveyed would at least like to see hunting banned at weekends and during school holidays. Recent accidents have involved walkers, cyclists and drivers shot as they passed hunting areas, though most deaths each season are among the hunters themselves.

“It is scandalous that a candidate so pro-Europe as Macron has done everything possible to try to get round the European birds directive,” Verilhac says. “They’ve been fighting this to the end. We have won on glue trapping, but have wasted time and energy fighting this. We have lost a year and the numbers of species are falling.

“So the fight goes on.”

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This piece was edited on 24 December 2021 to remove a photograph in which a yellowhammer being used as bait in a poacher’s trap was wrongly identified as a trapped ortolan.