Bird migration through Italy: The good, the bad and the ugly
The beauty of Italy, and how easy it is to recognise from space was recently lauded by an Italian cosmonaut. The cosmonaut may be biased of course, but there’s no doubt the elongated shape of the country and its position in the middle of the Mediterranean is of crucial geographic importance for millions of birds migrating between Africa and Eurasia.
From a conservation viewpoint, it seems like a good time to ask ourselves how dangerous a migratory trip along the Italian flyway is. Has the situation improved in the 50 years since BirdLife’s Italian partner LIPU was created?
To answer these questions, we start with BirdLife’s recent report on the illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean. The report clearly highlights that Italy is by far the worst country on the northern rim of the region, with an estimated 5.6 million birds killed yearly in the country. This figure reflects the fact that illegal killing of birds (especially of passerines) in Italy is still widespread. This is certainly the case for most of the islands, for a vast region in the central Alps and for many areas along the peninsula.
But there are also reasons for hope, in particular from a LIPU case study in southern Sardinia. LIPU has a long history of fighting illegal killing and taking in this area, mainly by removing thousands of traps each year from the beautiful but deadly evergreen forests and maquis (shrubland). It has only recently been possible – through the LIFE project A safe haven for wild birds: Changing attitudes towards illegal killing in North Mediterranean for European Biodiversity – to implement a comprehensive strategy, including raising awareness in schools, launching a public information campaign (called Leaving is Living) and stronger co-operation with enforcement agencies. This strategy is starting to pay off and the number of traps found in the area has decreased in the last few years.
Traditionally, hunters are a strong lobby in Italy and unfortunately have been mostly using their political power to support the continuation of these practices. But this group is ageing and recruitment of young hunters is proving difficult. Killing birds isn’t so cool in Italy anymore and mentalities are changing. LIPU is active in showing that while traditions are important, not all traditions are good–particularly not illegal ones.
In July 2015, the Italian Parliament approved a law to ban bird capturing by mist-nets and the use of living decoys. This is an extremely important step, although moving from theory to full implementation on the ground will require all our attention.
The campaign against the shooting of soaring birds of prey and storks on the Messina Strait has been a success both in Sicily and on the mainland. However, it would be a terrible mistake to reduce efforts in Italy’s main bottleneck. This is why LIPU and other organisations still help to patrol the area during migration.
For waterbirds, most of the largest Italian wetlands have been given legal protection and designation as Natura 2000 sites. The huge impact of hunting has been partially reduced as a result, but illegal killing and taking, pollution and a poor level of habitat management are still serious issues.
Overall, there are still many open wounds, but important battles have been fought and won. There are concrete signs that eliminating deadly traditions and illegal practices is possible. Many Italian youth are realising that birds have a right to migrate. In absolute terms, the situation is improving for birds travelling through Italy. However, many populations of migratory species have drastically fallen over the last few decades and the effects of climate change are expected to hit them harder in the coming years. So we need to intensify our efforts and speed up the healing process.