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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 June, 2005, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Italy's fight against illegal bird hunts
Julian Pettifer
By Julian Pettifer
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Italian environmentalists face a battle to stop the hunting of protected birds, a pursuit considered acceptable in many areas despite its illegality.

Birds in a trap
The hunters use traps, nets and decoys, all of which are forbidden

On the rugged, volcanic island of Ischia on the Bay of Naples, I visited a camp where volunteers from WWF Italy have been trying to stop the trapping and hunting of birds on their migratory journey from Africa to Northern Europe.

Leading the team was an enthusiastic amateur ornithologist from Milan, Daniele Colombo. Daniele and his friends gave up their holidays to perform a depressing and often fruitless task.

I joined them at their headquarters one morning as they surveyed the evidence of their night's work.

From the early hours of the morning they had been patrolling the cliffs and hillsides, searching for traps and snares and hoping to intercept hunters armed with shotguns.

They had enjoyed some success. Laid out on a table were about 50 small spring-loaded traps. Daniele explained how the traps do their deadly work.

He pointed out that each trap was baited with a maggot or a worm, still wriggling on its pin. Hungry and exhausted birds, desperate for food, take the bait and spring the trap which captures them around the neck, killing them instantly.

At least half of the traps held pathetic little corpses.

Closed season

"Today all of them are whinchats," Daniele told me, "they are the most numerous victims. But we also find pied flycatchers, nightingales, stonechats, redstarts, robins, thrushes and various warblers."

Net trap
Frames with mist nets are set up by the hunters to catch their prey

I remarked that most of these are very small species, weighing only a few grammes, but I was assured that nothing is too small to be trapped and eaten.

"Hunters with guns are after larger quarry," Daniele said. "Target number one is quail, but they will also shoot doves, oriole, hoopoe and even birds of prey."

Some of these species can legally be hunted at certain times of the year but not during the closed season.

According to the European Union Birds Directive, the closed season must cover the breeding season, and for migratory birds, the spring migration to their breeding grounds.

The use of traps, bird lime (glue), nets, live decoys and poison is forbidden at all times.

Elaborate traps

Daniele summarised the activities of his team during the previous few days.

Old shells
There was plentiful evidence of the hunters' activities
As well as confiscating hundreds of traps, with police assistance they had seized three guns, two of which had had code numbers erased to avoid identification of the owners.

He also showed me 10 electronic decoys they had found. These are used by the hunters to broadcast bird calls which attract unwary migrants towards the guns.

Some of this equipment was very elaborate. One set-up, discovered in the middle of a steep cliff, had an antenna, a remote control and 200 metres of cable leading to the loudspeakers.

As well as WWF, other conservation organisations are working to stop the illegal slaughter.

The Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli (LIPU) has more than 100 volunteers in different parts of Italy as illegal hunting is by no means confined to Ischia.

In fact, it is even more organised in northern Italy where songbirds fetch a high price in gourmet restaurants.

Big business

In the Breschia valleys, LIPU has confiscated more than 50,000 traps set to capture robins and other small birds.

These ponds have been run by an organised crime syndicate
General Fernando Fuschetti, Forestry Police

In recent years, 600 mist nets have also been removed, and 6,000 trapped birds have been freed.

When I travelled from Ischia back to Naples I came across another example of how thoroughly established illegal hunting is in Italian culture.

One of the problems with law enforcement in Italy is that no fewer than five different police forces are supposed to regulate hunting and enforce the law.

I had an appointment to see General Fernando Fuschetti of the Forestry Police who wanted to show me what he regarded as one of his recent successes.

He took me to a wetland near Naples where his men had raided and shut down a string of 10 hunting ponds.

"These ponds," he told me, "have been run by an organised crime syndicate for poaching wildfowl during the closed season."

Challenging attitudes

The business had allegedly been turning over millions of euros for the bad guys.

Another police officer I spoke to was highly critical of what he regarded an assault on a revered local institution

There was certainly plenty of evidence of their activities. The ground was covered with spent cartridges and the ponds littered with scores of decoys.

They had constructed elaborate concrete "hides", furnished with all mod cons: armchairs, fridges and even a TV so that they could enjoy their "sport" in comfort.

While the general was very proud of what he regarded as a victory for law enforcement by closing them down, another police officer I spoke to - from a different force - was highly critical of what he regarded an assault on a revered local institution.

Similar attitudes can be found elsewhere in southern Europe, in Malta, Greece, Cyprus Spain and Portugal.

It will take more than the Birds Directive to change them.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 2 June, 2005, at 1102 BST.

The programme will be repeated on Monday, 6 June, 2005 at 2030 BST.

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