Conservationists appalled at illegal killing of 25m birds a year in the Mediterranean

Glued, poisoned, trapped, shot – a shocking report reveals enforcement failure at a colossal scale as hunters across southern Europe and the Middle East kill birds with impunity

The Egyptians line their beaches with fine two-metre high nets that can stretch for miles across the Nile delta and will catch any bird coming close; the Maltese will cover whole trees in nylon; the Cypriots smear branches in glue to stop birds flying; the Italians will kill nearly anything that flies and the French like to set metal traps for small birds.

But the sheer scale of the cruelty of the illegal wild bird killings around the Mediterranean which was revealed last week has shocked conservationists and bird lovers across Europe.

According to the first study of its kind, which has attempted to put a realistic number on how many birds are killed illegally each year, possibly 25 million chaffinches, thrushes, robins, quails and many other species are being shot, trapped or poisoned as they migrate to and from mainland Europe.

But what has shocked most is that strong laws have been shown not to be working and are being openly flaunted by hunters. Nearly half the 25m killings occur in EU states where the birds directive applies, and many other Mediterranean countries also ban the hunting of songbirds.

British ornithologist and conservationist Bill Oddie this week blamed hunting groups and complicit bureaucrats for what he says is a massive failure of governments and the authorities to act.

“Around half the birds being killed are in countries where strong laws theoretically protect birds,” said Oddie. “The figures are shocking and it’s getting worse. Hunting groups in many countries are stopping the laws being enforced. Many people in the EU probably know or actually are shooters. People in power like killing things.”

A fan-tailed warbler trapped by glue in Cyprus.
A fan-tailed warbler trapped by glue in Cyprus. According to BirdLife, an estimated 900,000 birds were caught at Dhekelia, a British military base in the south-east of the Island. Photograph: RSPB/PA

According to Oddie, hunters are now going to extreme lengths to trap birds on a much greater scale than just 20 years ago. “In Egypt a 70km stretch of coast was found with continuous 6-7ft high mist nets to catch quails,” he said. “In some countries, like Cyprus, the bird killing is on an industrial scale. We did not know how dangerous it is for birds in Egypt. What is new is that we know now that it’s not just some countries. Even ‘unsafe countries” like Syria and Libya are killing them on a huge scale.”

Lobbying by hunting groups, reluctance by the EU to act and national justifications of tradition and culture have encouraged illegal bird hunting to flourish despite strong laws, says Ann-Laure Brochet, the author of the study.

“These are best estimates, a baseline figure. Figures cannot be entirely accurate because there is no monitoring or checks in some countries. In some places we don’t know what is going on, so we can only estimate the range of killings,” said Brochet who took evidence from hunting organisations, governments and conservation groups to arrive at the estimated number.

Bird killing map

The research, which has been accepted for publication later this year in Bird Conservation International journal, suggests that Italy and Egypt are the the most dangerous countries for migratory birds, followed by Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus. In Italy, where about 5.6m birds are killed each year, over 150 species are killed in significant numbers.

According to a report (pdf) which draws on the scientific study, the most dangerous place in the Mediterranean was found to be the Famagusta area of Cyprus where nearly 700,000 birds are killed every year. Many hundreds of thousands are are targeted on or close to the British Dhekelia military base where the Ministry of Defence has agreed to uproot illegally planted trees and shrubs which trappers use for cover and to lure birds.

The chaffinch tops the Mediterranean ‘kill list’ with an estimated 2.9m killed every year, closely followed by blackcap (1.8m), quail (1.6m) and song thrush (1.2m). Numbers of many of the species tgargeted, like the European turtle dove and the song thrush, are already in steep decline, while others like the pallid harrier and the Egyptian vulture, are on the European red list, meaning that any killings can seriously affect numbers.

“We know that there are far fewer birds in Europe than there were 20 years ago, so what is happening now is more serious,” said Brochet.

The paper exposes some of the methods that hunters use to kill birds. These include shooting and catching in nets, the use of birdsong recordings to lure species to traps, and putting glue on branches to prevent birds flying.

“This review shows the gruesome extent to which birds are being killed illegally in the Mediterranean. Populations of some species that were once abundant in Europe are declining, and disappearing altogether,” said BirdLife International chief executive, Patricia Zurita.


The report is published as the European commission seeks to “modernise” Europe’s birds and habitats directives which form the base of nature protection in all 28 member states. The official assessment to decide whether the laws, which were largely drawn up by British bureaucrats, are “fit for purpose” is widely seen by conservation groups as an attempt to weaken them in the face of pressure by governments, hunting groups and developers.

This has sparked outrage. In May, over 100 leading nature organisations wrote in a briefing to the European commission that as a result of this review, British species and landscapes could face the “biggest threat in a generation.” Over 500,000 people, including 100,000 in Britain, have now urged the commission “to maintain and enforce EU nature legislation.”

A recent assessment of European birds showed that nearly one-fifth are considered to be at risk of extinction across the European Union with habitat loss, climate change and increasingly intensive farming being key causes of threat.


John Vidal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
25m birds illegally killed in Mediterranean each year, says report
Conservationists call for action to end slaughter of birds after study uncovers epidemic of illegal shooting, trapping and gluing

Arthur Neslen and agencies

21, Aug, 2015 @4:01 AM

Article image
Australia gave endangered birds to secretive German ‘zoo’, ignoring warnings
Exclusive: government issued export permits for more than 200 rare and endangered parrots, despite concerns they were being offered for sale rather than exhibited

Lisa Cox in Melbourne and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

10, Dec, 2018 @7:00 PM

Article image
Wading birds declining in the UK
Conservationists say climate change could be partly to blame for big drop in numbers in eight of the main species over 10 years

Caroline Davies

30, Jul, 2014 @2:33 PM

Article image
Sparrow tops garden birds survey

Despite a steady decline in numbers, the house sparrow is still the most common bird found in British gardens, an annual survey by the RSPB has found

Jessica Aldred

21, Mar, 2005 @5:05 PM

Article image
Wildlife-friendly farming will keep British birds singing | Martin Harper
Martin Harper: Divert funds from direct subsidies to encourage wildlife-friendly farming to save British wildlife – or the countryside will fall silent

Martin Harper

09, Dec, 2013 @11:01 AM

Article image
Conservation agency approved cull of endangered birds, documents show
Natural England licensed cull of tens of thousands of lesser black-backed gulls on one of England's largest shooting estates

Leo Hickman

23, May, 2013 @6:34 PM

Article image
How lax legislation is killing the wildlife in Europe
There are no elephants or rhino to kill in Europe, but birds are being hunted with impunity because of loopholes and inconsistencies in conservation laws

Bradnee Chambers and Jacques Trouvilliez

03, Mar, 2015 @6:01 AM

Article image
Common bird species such as sparrow and skylark facing decline in Europe
Some rarer birds have grown in number over last 30 years due to conservation efforts while some well known species have fallen

Azeen Ghorayshi

02, Nov, 2014 @4:08 PM

Article image
Bird-killing vet drug alarms European conservationists
A notorious veterinary drug that killed millions of vultures in India is now on sale in Europe

Adam Welz

11, Mar, 2014 @7:01 PM

Article image
‘A legitimate zoo?’ How an obscure German group cornered global trade in endangered parrots
How did a former nightclub manager persuade governments to authorise the export of so many endangered species?

Lisa Cox in Melbourne and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

10, Dec, 2018 @7:00 PM