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Europe and Central Asia
7 Jul 2016

Can the European Commission save the Ortolan Bunting?

A male Ortolan Bunting. Photo: Aurelien Audevard
By Alison Duncan

The French population of the Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana) has declined by 50-75% in the last 30 years. This, despite hunting of the species being forbidden by law since 1979. It was even made a protected species in 1999. However, each year, about 30.000 Ortolan Buntings are illegally trapped and killed during the autumn migration in August and September in the southwest of France.

The Les Landes département is particularly dangerous for the birds, which not only breed regularly in France but also migrate from Scandinavia, Poland and the Baltic through France. Here, traditional hunting methods such as cage traps are used to illegally ensnare the birds – considered a gastronomic delicacy (a number of well-known politicians have admitted to eating them, even former President of France Francois Mitterand could not resist).

Despite it being illegal, these birds may be sold to restaurants for up to 150€ per bird. Its preparation and consumption is a veritable ritual; force-feeding the bunting to increase the fat reserves and then drowning it in Armagnac (a type of French brandy).

Because people consider it a cultural and culinary tradition, public authorities turn a blind eye to these practices. To make matters worse, in 2014 several French Michelin-starred chefs came out publicly on national TV to support the tradition of trapping Ortolan Buntings, pleading for at least one weekend when the trapping could be legalised.

LPO (BirdLife in France) considers this situation unacceptable. Confronted with the inaction of the French government with respect to full application of the law, LPO decided 10 years ago to start intervening on the ground during the autumn migration to expose the practice and raise awareness among the general public.

Today, LPO works together with CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) in an attempt to bring an end to this illegal trapping. The trapping sites are identified from the air, birds are released from cage traps and complaints are handed into the local police stations or the offices of the national agency for hunting and wildlife (ONCFS) in the hopes that enquiries will be made and the cases pursued rather than being shelved.

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In 2013, LPO sent a complaint to the European Commission. In March 2015, the Commission informed LPO that the French government had given a satisfactory reply to their questions, including that it was working with LPO on the issue; and if the NGO had no more evidence, the Commission would close the complaint. LPO immediately sent a dossier with information from the previous poaching season to Brussels. 

LPO has continued sending proof to the Commission that the French government is doing nothing to stop the illegal trapping and that it has convicted very few of the hunters involved. On 16 June this year, there was some cause for hope. The Commission announced that it had sent a “reasoned opinion” to the French government, which now has two months to satisfy the Commission that it was taking action to stop this illegal killing, or else the Commission could bring France before the European Court of Justice.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.