France reprimanded over controversial bird hunting practices

64 species can be hunted in France whereas the EU average is 30. The list includes migratory birds like the greylag goose, whose hunting is "illegal" because it prevents them from travelling up North, NGOs say. [Jimmy Edmonds / Flickr]

Paris has ignored a letter of formal notice sent by the European Commission in July last year, which calls on French authorities to stop illegal bird hunting.

The French government even doubled down in May by publishing a decree, which maintains controversial bird hunting techniques that are prohibited at EU level.

Vivian Loonela, EU Commission spokesperson on the environment, says the infringement case was still open.

“The Commission is aware of the publication of this new decree and will consider this new element in the follow up of the case,” she told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

“The Commission is requesting France to ban non-selective hunting practices, such as glue and nets, which are not in line with the requirements of this Birds Directive,” Loonela said.

While EU countries “may derogate from certain provisions of the directive,” they may only do so “under strict conditions that are not fulfilled in this case,” Loonela explained.

The controversial hunting techniques are decried by the Ligue de protections des oiseaux (LPO), a French conservation NGO affiliated to BirdLife International.

According to conservationists, the French law is illegal because it allows hunting bird species that are in bad conservation state. It also allows the hunting of migratory birds and maintains traditional hunting practices like birdliming, which are “not selective and harms species”.

When it comes to bird hunting, France is an EU outlier, says Yves Verilhac, who represents BirdLife International in France.

“64 species can be hunted in France, contrary to Netherlands which authorises only 2. The average in the EU is 30 species, making France the most lenient country towards hunters,” he claims.

The list of species authorised for hunting in France also includes migratory birds like the greylag goose, whose hunting is “illegal” because it prevent them from flying further North than France, says Verilhac.

In Brussels, the European Commission appeared to back this argument. Loonela said the EU executive “pays particular attention to the compliance of hunting practices in France because 20 of the 64 huntable species are not in favourable conservation status.”

The Commission has opened a new procedure “asking France to step up protection of the Turtle dove as hunting contributes to the decline of this species,” Loonela said.

For bird protection NGOs, the most controversial is undoubtedly traditional hunting techniques like birdliming and nets, which “are not selective” and harm protected species.

But hunters’ organisations argue those practices are tightly regulated. Thierry Coste, a lobbyist representing the National Federation of Hunters (FNC), says this tradition is limited to only five departments in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region around Marseille and Nice.

“Hunters capture thrushes for their birdsongs,” Coste said. “They observe strict rules, such as specific hours of day, releasing other birds and cleaning them,” as well as the obligation to stay on site, observe quotas and declare the installations, he explains.

According to Coste, only 30,000 birds are concerned by these hunting practices which are strictly supervised by the French biodiversity office (OFB), the environmental police.

Conservationists claim the practices cause physical damages to passerine birds like tits and robins, because of the products hunters use to unglue them.

By tolerating the controversial hunting practices, LPO also accuses the government and local authorities of playing to “a populist crowd” and courting votes from the far-right, which is a traditional ally of hunters.

Hunters routinely “fail to declare the location of traps,” even though they are legally required to do so, says Verilhac. “That’s why (conservationists) used hidden cameras” to track violations of hunting laws, he says.

For 20 years, LPO tried to stop these practices, seizing every possible court at national level and winning 13 times at the ‘Conseil d’Etat’, France’s supreme jurisdiction in charge of interpreting the law.

“The more time goes by, the more guilty the government is,” Verilhac continues, saying the authorities use excuses such as “scientific catches” to continue tolerating the controversial hunting practices.

If France fails to convince the Commission, it could be taken to the European Court of Justice. In 2018, Malta was condemned for the same reason.

And with the World Conservation Congress coming up shortly in Marseille (January 2021), Verilhac has “very high hopes” that this time, “it will work.”

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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