I really try so hard to be rational and balanced about most things (fighting my Celtic emotional side) but the ecological damage caused by hunting in Italy of protected wild bird species and animals tests that to its limits.
Hunting in Italy was once an important element in feeding a rural populace and, in times of grinding poverty (which lasted in many Italian regions well into the 1960s), wild birds and small animals were an important protein source. But that was one man with a gun and a large family to feed, not groups of thoughtless Rambo clones on target practice.
There is a Catholic tradition in much of southern Europe that has long assigned humankind dominion over the earth and, sadly, this is still taken literally and birds are regarded as flying targets by many. I am afraid I have no time for the “but we have no right to interfere” approach. I could never subscribe to this (or any other) anthropocentric philosophy. Time is running out and it is a far greater crime not to interfere and to stand back and let stupidity and selfishness have free reign. There are wider, more important issues concerning the survival of nature…those birds are passing through and numbers decrease annually.
Did you know that, in Italy, you can legitimately oppose the entrance of strangers to your home and property except when they wear their hunting garb and come onto your land to kill the wildlife? If your land is fenced to a height of 1.40m all around that should stop them…in theory. True, there are laws and there are the sensible hunters (such as friends we know) who despair of the reckless antics of others who want ‘freedom’ to hunt whatever and whenever they like. Those either willing to or capable of working towards sustainability are in a small minority and the macho element in the rest is considerable. There is a police force, the Corpo Forestale who try to control and a special unit of the Carabinieri to deal with ecological crime of all sorts. However, their numbers are small and, in general, there is far too great a sympathy between local police and the hunters. After all, a regular supply of wild boar goes down well as an ‘inducement’ to turn a blind eye.
I was surprised to find a deep, residual fear among many people in Italy concerning the legendary retributive tendencies of hunters who, when castigated, return to shoot pets and domestic animals. Friends warned me to ‘be careful’ but I have always taken the view that lifting stones to let light in on a problem is the best defence. Hide and one merely plays their skulking game. Thus far, using a camera with a long lens and making sure I am seen, has proved effective for most hunters are breaking some rule somewhere…This is Italy and in 2008 there were 71 human deaths associated with hunting and numerous serious injuries, to say nothing of large numbers of dead domestic animals to add to a wild toll that runs into hundreds of millions of birds and animals annually.On any accounting system this is not sustainable.
The European Wild Birds directive should, in theory, prevent the hunting of most wild bird species. In 2004 Birdlife International and FACE (the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU) reached agreement on ten points that would enable hunting to continue in a well-regulated framework. Ever adept at rule bending, Italian hunting proponents wheedled concessions where the rules can be suspended and protected species killed for ‘agricultural’ and other exceptions. One of the things they regarded as a legitimate ‘exceptions’ is preservation of ‘tradition’ – in this case the demand for carcasses of small birds used in polenta dishes in the Lombardia and Veneto regions. Yes, it is illegal to serve this in restaurants but when local hunting is controlled then container loads of tiny birds are brought in Romania and other countries. The Italian idea of ‘exception’ is not consistent with what was intended and several cases (which will result in millions of euro of fines) are going through the lengthy censuring processes required. Just last year, there was provision in the Veneto alone for over a million meadow pipits to be caught ‘legitimately’. Let’s face it – who counts the tiny mutilated bodies? The fact remains that the decimation of European wild bird stocks by Italy is vast, in spite of many dedicated people who go out with the Corpo Forestale and destroy nets and traps and the bulk of the population who abhor it.
The level of ecological ignorance is astonishing – to allow hunting of starlings (numbers falling everywhere in Europe) it is claimed they damage olive harvests when by far the main proportion of their food (as insectivores) are the insect pests on olives.Italians are wonderful growers of fruit and vegetables but close to our home many still believe that ladybirds must be destroyed and they liberally spray organophosphates and nicotinic derivatives to do this and thus decimate populations of other pollinating insects. Along with various Italian friends we have exhibited photographs to show what, in close-up, a ladybird and its larvae really do to aphids.
I confess that I hate the killing of any wild thing for selfish ‘sport’ but I am also a conservationist who recognises a need to control, sensibly, wherever humans intervene and try to set up reserves. Wild boar in Italy are a huge problem doing damage to crops and creating havoc in reserves – I have seen orchid meadows of one year become areas that looked ploughed the next. The endemic Italian race of wild boar was hunted virtually to extinction and so the hunting fraternity brought in boars from eastern Europe. They created hybrids that are much bigger animals with a capacity for producing 3 litters per annum with up to 10 piglets in each. One friend (both a conservationist and carabinieri officer) told us of a region where they caught the boar on a reserve and at night hunters came and let them out again…there is a certain bitter irony in the cries to “let us solve the problem ” by the hunters when they created it and animals are still bred illegally and released.
And time and time again you will hear hunters, most of whom could not tell a chaffinch from a goshawk, tell you they are the ‘salvation of nature’. “But we love nature” they claim. No, the bulk of hunters get a buzz from their dominance over nature – I have discussed this with friends: we have our ‘similarities’ for I spend hours watching through binoculars or with a telephoto but when I press the trigger nothing dies…a tiny distinction.
I had been looking forward to the end of the hunting season on January 31st since the first days of what they call the ‘pre-apertura’ in Italy, the extra days of slaughter from fixed positions of migrants that have yet to leave – hoopoes, golden orioles, bee eaters included. Things had been relatively calm for a while after a spate of confrontations with the same man who had begun to hang around our property. He was warned off through friends. Suddenly with just a few days to go a group of three positioned themselves at around 150m from the house (which they can do) and shot indiscriminately at flocks of birds coming over…goldfinches in the main. Illegal and we told them, politely…to a torrent of abuse. Now they know we have photographs of what they were doing. It sickened deeply me to think that thrushes and blackbirds that had escaped the onslaught for months would, in the final few freezing days, be deprived of life – and for what? All we ask is that the laws are obeyed and that our rights are respected, too – don’t come closer than 100m to our building, don’t fire at it or at us…those little things in life. It would be nice, too, not to be dragged out of sleep forcibly by loud shot gun blasts an hour before dawn. Our neighbours hate it too…
Mussolini gave hunters a right to roam in 1923 so he could have a private army – many would like a right to roam unmolested without the birdsong being punctuated by blasts of guns ripping through the air. Its called democracy – the wish of the majority of decent Italian people…even the Romans, for all their faults, would have recognized that two millennia ago.
Maybe, when this latest assault from the hunting fraternity is overturned we shall open a bottle of Prosecco – This motion is illegal, pure and simple: Italy signed up to the necessary directives as far back as 1978.