Hunters in France are outraged that President Emmanuel Macron, under pressure from Brussels, has ordered them to stop trapping thrushes and blackbirds on glue-covered twigs. But conservationists welcome the beginning of the end of what they see as a barbaric practice from a bygone era.
Fans of writer Roald Dahl will remember The Twits: two unsavoury characters whose meanness was portrayed via the pleasure they took from painting tree branches with glue to trap birds for their meat pies.
Dahl was inspired by a genuine hunting tradition known as birdliming which has gradually been eradicated across Europe following the EU's 1979 Birds Directive.
But a small minority of hunters in the south of France still look forward to it each year.
In five departments in the south east, around Marseille and Nice, some 5,000 to 6,000 hunters use glue-covered sticks to trap thrushes and blackbirds in a process they call chasse à la glu.
The songbirds are put in cages and used as “callers” to attract fellow wild birds with their melodic chants, thus providing hunters with easy pickings.
At the end of the season the birds are, in theory, released back into the wild.
Sacrificing tradition on the altar of green politics
Last year French hunters were allowed to trap more than 40,000 songbirds in this way. But on Thursday Macron announced that the quota for this year's shooting season, which begins on 1 September, would be zero.
“We're flabbergasted,” Willy Schraen, head of the National Federation of Hunters (FNC), said in a statement.
“The president's decision is incomprehensible in terms of the impact this practice has. It concerns only a handful of hunters.”
The Federation claimed around 30,000 thrushes and blackbirds were concerned by glue-trapping out of an estimated 700 million in Europe. In other words “just 0.001 percent”.
“Hunters cannot understand that this practice is being sacrificed in the name of a display of green politics. A whole swathe of French and rural culture is disappearing,” Schraen continued, insisting that “this traditional form of hunting has no impact on biodiversity and is selective”.
A cruel, non-selective practice
But on that last point conservationists and bird protection campaigners roundly disagree.
“Any bird can be trapped,” Allain Bougrain Dubourg, head of the Ligue de la protection des oiseaux (LPO) told RFI.
“In principle this method is aimed at thrushes and blackbirds, but it's a non-selective practice which can affect other species.”
He said they'd found goldfinches, greenfinches, warblers and robins struggling on glue sticks or clumps of their feathers covered in glue after they'd been yanked off the sticks.
“Our cameras proved that trappers didn't carefully and attentively remove birds from the glue sticks, but pulled feathers off in the process, and then threw the unwanted birds away.”
Infringement of the Birds Directive
The LPO has campaigned for years against glue-hunting and their evidence that it is not selective, as required under EU regulations, persuaded the European Commission to act.
In July the Commission issued a warning that France could face legal action at EU level if it continued with the practice, in breach of the Birds Directive.
The Directive allows EU countries to derogate from certain provisions, allowing the pocket of French hunters to carry on glue-hunting years after Spain, Italy and Malta were forced to stop.
But “only under strict conditions that are not fulfilled in this case” Vivian Loonela, EU Commission spokesperson on the environment told the Euractiv website.
The Commission gave France three months to comply, warning that failure could result in the case being taken to the European Court of Justice.
Barbara Pompili, the recently appointed Minister for Ecological Transition, was keen to avert that.
“This practice is banned by the EU, so we're now complying with the EU,” Pompili told CNews on Friday.
“Glue-hunting is dangerous for biodiversity in the sense that it's not selective. We should have done this a long time ago,” she said.
Tradition from a bygone era
The hunters insist their methods are strictly supervised: they can trap the birds only from daybreak to 11am, and numbers are limited.
“Hunters observe strict rules, such as specific hours of day, releasing other birds and cleaning them of the glue,” Thierry Coste of the National Federation of Hunters said.
But Bougrain-Dubourg maintains it's an odious and cruel tradition.
“Birds are plucked off the glue sticks, their feathers remain stuck and they're thrown down on the ground,” he said. “Without their feathers they can't survive. So it's not true that birds are not killed.”
While he welcomed Macron's announcement saying it would give these poor birds “a reprieve,” he insisted the decision “wasn't made on moral grounds, but under pressure from Brussels”.
Awaiting the ECJ
Bird protection and hunters' organisations are now waiting for the ECJ to deliver its verdict on whether or not glue-trapping infringes EU law and whether the suspension will therefore become an outright ban.
Hunters can count on the support of the Minister of Agriculture.
“I deeply respect hunters and I don't think we always represent them as they really are,” Julien Denormandie told France Info on Friday.
“Our country is full of traditions and that's a good thing. They keep us alive, they're part of our identity, and traditional hunting is part of that,” he said, adding that the debate on glue-hunting was still open.
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Bougrain-Dubourg is convinced the ECJ will confirm France has to stop glue-hunting once and for all.
“France is the last country in Europe to do this and I can't see how the Commission can allow it here when it's banned elsewhere.
“Either France decides not to hunt or we'll go before the Court and risk very heavy fines of up to €100,000 per day for non-compliance,” he said.
“French tax payers will then have to pay for the pleasure of the few.”
No going back
Glue-hunting has been described as barbaric, a term hunters and supporters of a more rural way of life reject.
“The word barbaric doesn't shock me because this is a practice from a bygone age,” said Bougrain-Dubourg.
“Now it's time to take a more ethical approach. Europe is pulling us up in that respect, inviting us to behave more ethically.
“I think we've reached the end of this fight and I can't imagine we'll go back to the feudal and odious methods of the past.”
In the meantime, LPO's thoughts are turning to the thousands of caged songbirds who were destined to take part in this year's shooting season.
“Each of the 5,000 or more hunters had the right to keep 50 caged birds. They're kept in miniscule cages and now this hunting is banned we're asking for their release.”
Hunters won't be left empty-handed this season though.
The French environment ministry issued a decree on Friday authorising the shooting of 17,640 European turtle doves. This is despite the fact their numbers have declined by 80 percent over the last three decades in France, making them a threatened species.
“It's agonising,” Bougrain-Dubourg concluded, promising to call on France's State Council - the nation's highest administrative court - to block the decree.