Success for Europe

by Eugen Tönnis


A parliamentary initiative by the North Italian MEP Michl Ebner, close ally and supporter of Europe’s hunters and bird trappers, to extend the hunting season for migratory birds well into the Spring, has failed miserably. The biggest scandal of all is that the greatest support for this initiative came not from the ‘classic’ migratory bird hunting lands such as France and Italy; but from the German sister conservative partners CDU/CSU.

Background – Few clauses of the EU Guidelines for Bird Protection are so clear as the one banning the hunting of birds in spring. Under Article 7, the member states are unambiguously obliged to ban the hunting of birds during the nesting and rearing season, as well as during their return flight from their winter quarters. This clause is of central importance for the protection of the already decimated migratory bird populations. The remaining birds, which have escaped the autumnal persecution by hunters in the Mediterranean and North Africa and survived the rigours of their flight over the Sahara, are essential for the propagation of the species in their central European breeding grounds. The shooting of a single bird automatically means the loss of a potential parent together with its offspring.

This was recognized by the initiators of the guidelines. For this reason, when the guidelines were introduced more than 20 years ago in Brussels, they withstood the fierce opposition of the European hunting lobby and refused to accept any form of compromise. The hunters, however, were not prepared in the least to have their hard-won rights to shoot the returning migratory birds curbed quite so easily. In Germany displaying wood pigeons were a prime target of the stalkers; in Italy, especially at Easter, thrushes were prized as delicacies. According to an ancient Sicilian superstition, all real men must shoot a bird of prey each spring in order to retain their sexual potency. The shooting of migrating turtle doves in May is still a favourite local sport in the Gironde in the southwest of France.

Nevertheless, the days of the spring hunt are conclusively at an end. As a result of an environmental objection by the Komitee gegen den Vogelmord (KgV – Committee against Bird Slaughter), Germany has had to hastily alter its Hunting Law. France passed a new law last year (2000) and in Italy, where since 1992 the hunting season ends on the 31st January, special forestry police units, supported by the KgV, hunt the hunters. No wonder alarm bells have been ringing for European hunting functionaries for some time. Not only is the drastic shortening of the hunting season through the banning of the spring hunt a major problem; the hunt in itself is becoming increasingly unexciting and many hunters are hanging up their shotgun on the wall permanently. In Italy alone over 2 million hunters have ‘retired’ since the introduction of the bird directives – with a corresponding reduction in the political influence of the once powerful hunting and trapping lobby.

The north Italian MEP Michl Ebner of the South Tyrol Peoples’ Party, himself a passionate hunter, has not failed to notice this – potentially – fatal development. In September 2000 he presented a declaration to his Strasbourg colleagues, proposing that the irksome ban on the spring hunt be struck from the bird directive. According to him, the states of the European Union should be permitted in future to set their national rules once more on the duration of the hunting season.

EU regulations oblige the Commission to introduce a new directive if at least half the MEPs sign such a declaration within a 2 month period. At first it seemed as if Ebner would be successful. Many MEPS, under the impression that the move was only an attempt to curb the dominance of the allegedly all-powerful Commission, were persuaded to sign the declaration. At the beginning of November 2000, as the KgV became aware of the imminent threat, it seemed as if the fate of the bird directive was sealed. Only 60 out of 314 signatures separated the hunters from their aim of scuppering the directive.

The Committee’s Bonn office hurriedly informed all European party groupings. In close cooperation with NABU, the German Birdnet and the German Environmental Aid Organisation, all German speaking MEPs were urged not to sign the declaration; or to withdraw their signature if they had already signed. In other European countries, in particular France and Italy, the protest grew apace. In several MEP’s offices the computers crashed in reaction to the flood of incoming mails. As the names and photographs of MEPs, who despite personal appeals still supported the proposal, were published in the ‘Koelner Express’ and other major newspapers in Germany, the Ebner initiative finally collapsed. The European Green and Social Democrats declined their support almost unanimously. Several German CDU MEPs withdrew their signatures; but 40 CDU/CSU conservatives ignored all the arguments and gave their continued support to the proposal. (A list of names is available D.C.)

At the end of the day the European bird directive was rescued. That’s not all. The European conservation organisations effectively demonstrated that, in spite of the apparent superiority of the six and a half million hunters between Lapland and Sicily, they are capable of exercising effective political lobbying pressure – when they pull together. This will be needed in future, as the European Union is currently preparing a regulation which will compel members states, in particular Germany, Greece and Spain, to drastically reduce their open season during bird migration. It will not be easy to steer this legislation unscathed past the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament; but the common success in defending the ban on spring hunting is a hopeful omen.

© Komitee gegen den Vogelmord e.V. 2001
© translation David Conlin 2001

Homepage – Komitee gegen den Vogelmord

Profile – Michl Ebner MEP

[and link-in to the European Parliament]

Convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals

Übereinkommen zur Erhaltung der wandernden wildlebenden Tierarten

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