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A delicacy is close to extinction as a species

Ortolan Bunting trapping in the South of France

The Ortolan Bunting is one of Europe's rarest song birds. The populations in Central Europe are shrinking visibly and the bunting species is threatened with extinction in Germany. In France gourmets spend a small fortune for an Ortolan Bunting dish. The bird is the victim of egoistic human consumers.

Ortolan Bunting: threatened with extinction throughout Europe - a coveted (illegal) delicacy in FranceOrtolan Bunting: threatened with extinction throughout Europe - a coveted (illegal) delicacy in FranceIn autumn, the westerly migration route to Africa of Ortolan Buntings takes them across the South of France. In the Département of Les Landes, south of Bordeaux, the trappers wait longingly for their prey. Small cage traps, to catch the coveted buntings alive, are concealed in fields of maize. Few birds land up in the kitchen immediately - a dreadful ordeal awaits them first. The birds are kept in cages in darkness to disorientate them and interrupt their daily rhythm. It is said that some have their eyes burnt out to achieve the same effect. The confused birds begin to eat without pause and double their weight within a few weeks. The fattened wild birds are then slaughtered and sold to restaurants.

Gourmets describe the taste of Ortolan Buntings as ‘magical‘. As part of the ritual a table napkin is placed over the head when eating the delicacy in order not to disturb others at the table with a blissfully distorted face and to preserve the intimacy of the moment (some also say that the diner hides his shame from God). Lovers of this delicacy, which is of course illegal, include well known personalities including the French Gaullist politician Alain Juppé and the deceased socialist President Francois Mitterand. It is reported that the latter demanded - and was served with - Ortolan Bunting shortly before he died.

Illegal Ortolan Bunting trapping installationIllegal Ortolan Bunting trapping installation Connoisseurs are prepared to pay several hundred euros for a single Ortolan Bunting, fried in the pan in butter and cognac. It is not surprising that many trappers are encouraged by such a profit margin. Some 1,500 poachers in the South of France specialise in Ortolan Bunting trapping and illegally catch between 40,000 and 80,000 of the rare birds, far more than the whole of the Central European population.

Trapping of Ortolan Buntings was banned not least due to a CABS campaign in the 1990s. For some years now the French government and police have made real efforts to combat poaching of the species. Although the scale of raids on restaurants and arrests of poachers still leaves a lot to be desired a start has been made. It is hoped that the gourmets die out before the Ortolan Buntings - it will be a neck-and-neck race.