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Birdlife Europe – Letting birds fly free

Special Interest Programme / Partner story

Photo by M. De Silvi

Every year, millions of migratory birds travel between their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia to Africa, where they spend the winter. This journey is not without danger unfortunately. At some of the sites the birds stop at along the way, they are under-protected, making the migratory trip a treacherous one.

An estimated 25 million birds are illegally killed, trapped and poisoned each year as they travel across the Mediterranean region. This death toll has negatively impacted the population of many species. Recent research revealed that from the 121 European bird species that migrate long distance crossing the Sahara, no less than 33 per cent are in decline.[1]

This is where the work of BirdLife International, a global Partnership of more than 115 conservation organisations comes in. It works to protect birds, and conserve their habitats and global biodiversity. Oak supports the efforts of BirdLife Europe, the European and Central Asian division of BirdLife International, in Italy, Malta, and Cyprus, as it seeks to combat the mass trapping of migratory birds, while also informing millions of citizens and mobilising many of them to get involved in this fight.

In many Mediterranean areas, illegal bird killing is ingrained in local culture. Historically, trapped birds were a food supplement for the poorest island inhabitants. However, trapping as practiced today, using mist nets and/or limesticks, with the use of electronic calling devices to attract birds, bears no relation to the traditional practice. Nowadays, illegal bird trapping takes  place at an industrial scale, contributing to the large scale killing of hundreds of thousands of migratory and resident birds. Songbirds are sold at restaurants and eaten at home, and it has become an illegal, profitable ‘business’ worth millions of Euro. 

BirdLife Europe and its national Partners adopted a three-pronged approach to achieve their conservation goals. First, the organisations collect data on illegal activity and the population levels of various species. Second, they raise awareness about the issue of illegal bird killing through media outreach and people engagement, and third, they carry out advocacy work at a local context, as well as at national and international levels. This includes the training of enforcement officers and reporting incidents.

Cyprus is one of the many regions where BirdLife Europe has seen tremendous success so far. Four years ago, BirdLife Cyprus recorded the highest ever trapping levels within the UK controlled Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area (SBA). Together with SBA authorities, they took the necessary steps to protect the birds, and the autumn 2020 survey revealed a 94 per cent decrease in trapping levels with illegal mist nets compared to 2002. In addition, BirdLife Cyprus’ education programme is working to dispel the myth that illegal bird trapping is not a widespread problem and, therefore, not an issue on the island, and to teach children to love and appreciate both birds and nature. As part of this effort, BirdLife Cyprus recently designed a board game for children, to experience the challenges faced by birds on their migratory journey home.

Italy is one of the Mediterranean countries with the highest number of birds killed illegally every year. LIPU, BirdLife in Italy, was instrumental in developing the national Action Plan to tackle illegal bird killing. Actions on the ground, including monitoring and reporting of illegal activities to the enforcement authorities, has brought concrete results: poaching traps in the Sulcis area in Sardinia have declined by 75 per cent, the illegal sale of wild-caught birds in Palermo has significanly declined following LIPU monitoring and Carabinieri intervention, and in the Apulia region, birds such as skylarks and quails are now safer after LIPU actions on illegal shooting and trapping stations. Recently, LIPU has supported the Carabinieri Forestali with its own specialised volunteers in the controls carried out in the Lombardy-Veneto Prealps black spot. The operation conducted by the Carabinieri Forestali led to more than 100 people reported to the authorities, thousands of pieces of trapping and shooting equipment confiscated, and more than 3,000 live and dead birds seized.

Malta is one of the smallest islands in the Mediterranean, but has the highest level of illegal bird killing per capita. BirdLife Malta works to make sure the country fully adopts European environmental regulations and stops abusing the derogations allowed for certain birds, such as the trapping of finches under the guise of research activity. BirdLife Malta monitors illegal field operations with drones and aerial photographic surveys and ground operations checking and reporting on trapping sites, with this information being used also in several court cases against illegal hunters. Thanks to its cooperation with national police, each year BirdLife Malta is also able to rehabilitate and release hundreds of illegally trapped birds, ensuring that these birds can continue their journey to their nesting sites. Work on the ground also supports legal and policy action. In fact, BirdLife Malta relays data and information to the European Commission Environment Directorate General, which is crucial in infringement proceedings aimed at bringing local regulation in line with the EU Birds Directive. The #OnTheMove campaign also reaches out to the local population to raise awareness on the dangers migratory species face.

This grant falls under our Special Interest Programme, which reflects the Trustees’ interests in making dynamic, diverse, large, innovative, and challenging grants. You can read more about the programme here. Find out more about Birdlife Europe here.

1 BirdLife International (2021) European Red List of Birds. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.