The Fellowship of Life
Man the enemy
At this time of the year huge numbers of small birds are pouring south on their way to their winter quarters in the sun. They follow ancestral routes, impelled by some mass impulse which still, despite intensive scientific research, remains largely a mystery. They have to contend with gale and storm and fog; they have to make their way over ocean and desert. And everywhere the hunters are waiting.
The Catholic countries are much worse than the Protestant ones. In the South of France, in parts of Spain and Portugal, and in Italy, nothing that moves is safe. The islands in the Mediterranean which are staging posts along the migrants' way - Malta, Sicily, Cyprus - are death traps. Malta has 16,000 hunters, or one in five of the population, and advertisements for new speedboats were captioned: "With this equipment you can shoot everything."
Now, suddenly, news from Cyprus suggests that something can after all be done. A Friends of the Earth group was formed there a few years ago. The island had then, in the words of the group's coordinator, Adrian Ackers-Douglas, "the unenviable reputation of killing more birds per head of population than any other country in the Mediterranean, perhaps in the world". Most were caught in nets or were limed. In some parts of the island, 75 per cent of all migrants which landed during their journey were being killed.
Friends of the Earth launched a campaign. Within the island, they sought to educate and inform; outside, they stirred up opinion by circulating leaflets in six languages to journalists and people in influential positions. Eventually there was an outcry. Letters to the government and the Cypriot press denounced the slaughter. As the campaign intensified, Friends of the Earth were able to argue that the tourist trade was suffering. Finally, in December 1984, the government of Cyprus announced that it was tightening the laws against liming and netting and was directing the police to enforce them effectively. A year later, in 1985 Adrian Ackers-Douglas calculated that "something like 18 million birds did not die on their way through Cyprus".
Could it be true? The International Council for Bird Preservation could hardly believe it. They decided to send an investigator to the island to observe this year's spring migration. He found no evidence of netting, little of liming.
In Sicily also there is some improvement. Traditionally, both sides of the Straits of Messina are lined with illegal hunters in spring. This year, however, according to the Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, conservationists, police and forestry guards joined forces to hunt the hunters.
There are violent feelings on both sides. Just three days before a seminar on bird preservation opened in Reggio last May, a bomb destroyed the car of one well-known campaigner for the cause, Anna Giordano, aged 20. She escaped unhurt.
The Quarterly does not expect many great victories in the war against this slaughter of the spring and autumn migrations which are among the wonders of the natural world. Only "an inch by inch advance" can be expected, it says. Anna Giordano had been given a medal two years earlier for her work. There need to be many more like her before Italy, for example, ceases to spurn the attitude of its patron saint, Francis of Assisi, who congratulated the birds - his "little sisters", as he called them - on having the "liberty to fly about everywhere".
From The Tablet dated 30 August 1986.
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