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23rd CABS Bird Protection Camp in Brescia (Italy)

Final report

1. Background

Song thrush trapped in a poacher's netSong thrush trapped in a poacher's netNowhere else in Italy is poaching so widespread as in Brescia Province. In the southern alpine mountains, between Lakes Iseo and Garda, thousands of poachers set out snap and bow traps, lime sticks and mist nets. More than 29,000 Brescia residents are hunters - 2.4 % of the population. Elsewhere hunters and poachers are different, indeed competing groups, in Brescia they represent an unholy alliance. Over half of the poachers are in possession of a hunting licence!

The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) has been active in the province since 1984 and this year conducted its 23rd international bird protection camp (BPC) from 3rd October to 1st November. Participants included volunteer nature and wildlife lovers from Germany, Italy, Poland, UK and USA.

2. Operational methods

As in past years our effort was concentrated on the search for sites with illegal traps and nets where the forest police could set ambushes to arrest poachers. To achieve this, four to six 2-3 person teams were deployed daily on operations. As soon as they located a trapping site, the most important (and most difficult) task was to find an approach route to the site which could be used at night without showing lights. If it was suspected that the teams have been observed in the vicinity of the trapping site, all nets and traps must be dismantled and removed immediately. This means that the poacher cannot be arrested red-handed in a police ambush; but this is unlikely anyway if the site has been compromised.

The activists on patrol in the countryside must make every effort to remain unseen. The trappers are aware of the CABS’ operations and view every stranger with great suspicion. The teams are therefore well trained in moving unobtrusively off the beaten track.

Volunteers with collected trapsVolunteers with collected trapsThe results of the daily searches are discussed every evening in a joint operational briefing with the forest police. In the course of the next few days police patrols are led to the previously reconnoitred trapping sites, usually in the period before dawn. In exceptional cases, such as when traps and nets set out in private gardens, the police are led to the nets in daylight. The armed police then lie in ambush and arrest the poacher when he comes to tend his nets and traps. This occurs within a few hours in the vast majority of cases.

After a poacher has been arrested, a CABS team searches the area thoroughly in order to locate and dismantle any traps and nets set by the poacher’s ‘neighbours’. Following a successful police raid, further ambushes in the immediate area are unlikely to bring results, as the poachers abandon any active sites for fear of being caught.

The teams travel in Italian rental vehicles or the private cars of our Italian members. German car registration plates only attract unwelcome attention in isolated areas of the province and can lead to unnecessary confrontation with poachers, or to compromising of police operations.

03. Results

In autumn 2009, CABS Brescia BPC members searched some 166 separate areas in the almost 2,600 km² trapping area between Lakes Iseo and Garda. Of these, nets and traps were found at 104 locations and 62 old trapping sites were found abandoned.

Grand totals autumn 2009:

  • Bow traps 2,159
  • Snap traps 340
  • Mist nets 167
  • Lime sticks 2
  • Wire snares 9
  • Poachers arrested 42

The locations of 60 sites with illegal trapping devices were reported by us to the state forest police and two more to the WWF honorary game wardens. Forest police officers arrested 40 illegal bird trappers and seized 915 bow traps, 163 snap traps, 52 mist nets and 2 lime sticks. The WWF wardens were able to arrest poachers at the two locations we showed them and also seized two nets.

Dead finch in a bowtrapDead finch in a bowtrapAt 18 locations the police ambushes failed. This was due to either the CABS team or the concealed police officers being spotted by the poachers. After some days of fruitless waiting the 105 snap traps and 11 mist nets at these locations were dismantled by the police.

At 444 locations CABS teams dismantled all trapping devices found. These amounted to a total of 1,047 bow traps, 74 snap traps, 104 mist nets and 9 wire snares. At there locations either the police had been previously active and the teams carried out a thorough follow-up search, or the poachers detected the CABS teams. Towards the end of the BPC all nets and traps found were dismantled immediately as the forest police operations had come to an end.

An analysis of these results is not easy. The use of the traditional bow traps has increased for the second year in succession. In 2007 the number of these traps found, 1,231, reached an all-time low. In 2008 this figure increased to 1,908 and this year to 2,159 (in 2001 the figure was 12,104!). The number of trappers is continually declining as is the average number of traps per trapping site. The poachers who trap for ‘home consumption’ are apparently satisfied with an ever-decreasing number of trapping devices. On the other hand, since 2008, the number of commercial trapping sites has increased - perhaps a reflection of the current economic crisis.

The obvious decline in the number of snap traps found is encouraging. These traps, which in contrast to the bow traps are not home made and must therefore be purchased (illegally), first appeared in the Brescia region in 1998. Since then numbers found every year have increased, latterly at a steep rate. In 2006 we found 284, last year 949 - an increase of 230 % in only 3 years. This autumn we found only 340 snap traps during operations. This represents a decrease by about two-thirds compared with 2008. This indicates that either the trappers have realised that this type of trap is much less effective than the conventional bow trap, or that the traps are harder to come by.

The number of mist nets found this year, at 167, is markedly higher than last year (in 2008 the total was 106). The numbers of nets found fluctuates however from year to year - a record number, 174, were found in 2005 but in 2007 only 133. In autumn 2009 we found a total of 75 nets at only two sites. This represents almost 45 % of the nets found at only 4 % of all trapping sites located. Some 92 nets were dismantled at the remaining 44 sites with nets. Our impression, that the use of nets is declining in most areas of the province and is only widespread at a few locations, is hereby confirmed.

Hawfinch kept in cage as a decoy for bird huntingHawfinch kept in cage as a decoy for bird huntingThe decline in the number of illegal live decoy birds at net sites is remarkable. The birds are positioned around the trapping site in small cages and lure individuals of the same species with their song. In 2007 we found 120 live decoys near 133 nets. The figures for 2008 were 85 decoys at 106 nets and this year only 59 decoy birds were found. We assume that our operations over the past few years have caused severe (financial) losses for the poachers, so that they are no longer prepared to take risks. This result is doubly pleasing, as fewer birds must suffer in the much too small cages. In addition the effectiveness of the nets sinks significantly, as only half the numbers of birds are trapped when decoy birds are not used as lures.

Nowadays lime sticks play hardly any role in Brescia. The two found by police after the arrest of a poacher on our information were the only ones found during the whole of our autumn operations. Wire snares, used for trapping wild boar and foxes are also few and far between.

4. Special operations

Some individual operations and finds this autumn are worth a special mention:

07.10.2009, Casto

On 07.10 two German CABS members found four mist nets near Casto in Val Sabbia and a forest police patrol was led to the site the following day. The culprit was arrested in the course of the morning. A subsequent search of his house brought surprising results. A total of 421 dead birds were found in his freezer, including 51 Robins, 31 Blackbirds, 14 Goldcrests and 200 unidentifiable plucked song birds!

12.10.2009, Colle San Zeno

The mountainous region of Colle San Zeno was previously one of the worst areas for poaching in Brescia. In the meantime the area was considered to be quiet to a large extent, that is until our teams discovered 10 nets and 98 bow traps there on 12.10. Two days later a police ambush was laid and the poacher was apprehended. The hunter, licensed to shoot from a permanent camouflaged hide, had a further 10 nets - still in their original packaging - in his hut. A further search of the area in the days following led to the seizure of a further 23 nets.

15.10.2009, Marone

CABS volunteers dismantle a net in a hunter's hut in LumezzaneCABS volunteers dismantle a net in a hunter's hut in LumezzaneAn unusual coup was made at Lake Iseo. Since the 1980s traps have been persistently set out on a mountain slope. The poachers, old ‘customers’ of CABS, check their traps on motor cycles. We have collected traps here for many years but half a dozen police ambushes have failed. On 15.10 we discovered 2 parked motor cycles and informed the police, who shortly arrived on the scene. On the way to the parking area they met the motorcyclists coming from the opposite direction. In their efforts to stop them one policeman was injured and one of the poachers escaped. The second poacher had a bag containing dead Robins and in a subsequent search of his house 80 deep frozen Robins and Wrens were discovered. The poacher who fled was arrested later and an illegal firearm was confiscated. Despite an extensive search of the area no traps were found.

17.10.2009, Lumezzane (Val Trompia)

Hunters have erected dozens of shooting hides to the north of the town of Lumezzane. Illegal nets are set out near many of the hides. Lumezzane is one of Brescia’s worst poaching hot spots. Police raids regularly fail because the hunters monitor the only approach road. Police ambushes do not therefore take place. On 16.10 a CABS team found a long and difficult, but concealed route to the shooting hides. Ten nets were found at 4 sites. During the night a patrol of 10 police officers were led to the trapping sites. By the afternoon of 17.10 a total of 5 poachers had been arrested. This was one of the most severe blows to date against the influential Lumezzane ‘hunting Mafia’ (see Para. 5).

21.10.2009, Vobarno

On 21.10, near Vobarno, a CABS team found 418 bow traps and 4 nets in a single location. Such a large and professional trapping site has not been found since 2003. A police ambush was regrettably out of the question as they were not on duty that day for political reasons. 26 – 31.10.2009, Lumezzane

On 26, 30 and 31.10 a large group of activists were deployed south of Lumezzane. In this dangerous area they checked 42 camouflaged hunters’ hides and at 27 sites (64 %) found and dismantled 42 nets. A total of 31 illegal live decoys were released into the wild.

5. Forest police operations

The special state forest police anti-poaching unit (NOA), consisting of more than 40 officers, was deployed in Brescia Province from 28 September to 25 October 2009.In this time frame they arrested almost 100 poachers - 40 of them as a result of our information.

Crossbill illegally kept in cageCrossbill illegally kept in cageOriginally the police operation was planned to last until the end of October. After 5 poachers were arrested red-handed at their nets near the industrial town of Lumezzane on 17.10 (see Para. 4), the police command centre was informed by the responsible Ministry for Agriculture in Rome that operations must be broken off early due to lack of funding. The responsible minister, Luca Zaia, is a member of parliament from the Lega Nord - the separatist party that demands independence for Northern Italy. The hunter-friendly Lega Nord is the strongest political party in Brescia Province. The Mayor of Lumezzane is also a member of Lega Nord …

After all large Italian nature and wildlife organisations protested against the premature withdrawal of the forest police in a joint press statement, and the police trade union also made representations to the minister, the latter reacted and prolonged the early departure of the unit from 21 to 25.10.2009.

6. The work of the game wardens

The WWF honorary game wardens conducted large scale and very successful bird protection operations in Brescia up until 2007. This exposed them to the fury of the influential hunters. As a result, the regional government of Lombardy changed the terms of reference of the game wardens, de facto putting an end to their effectiveness. Since 2008 only residents of Lombardy are permitted to carry out game warden duties and they are required to register the dates and areas of their operations months in advance. These restrictions are exceptional in Italy.

Up to 2007 over 50 game wardens from all over Italy were deployed on operations for a full month. This year there were only 5 wardens, checking hunters on only two weekends. Acting on information provided by CABS, they arrested 2 poachers at their nets and also caught a dozen hunters with illegally shot birds.

7. Hunting-free alpine passes

The EU bird protection guidelines oblige member states to protect alpine passes that are important for bird migration. The Brescia administration has refused for years to ban hunting at the passes. CABS took the matter to court and won their case in 2007. The judges ruled that the Passo Maniva and Colle San Zeno passes must remain free from hunting.

This judgement came into force from autumn 2009 but is applicable only to hunting on the move. Shooting from camouflaged hides in the passes is still permitted. Wardens from our partner organisation LAC, together with officers of the provincial police force, have monitored this new hunting ban on every Sunday in autumn 2009

8. Relaxation of hunting regulations 2009

In 1996 the Lombardy government was the first legal organ in the whole of Europe to permit the hunting of protected species, Chaffinch and Brambling.

Since that time, several regions in Northern Italy have authorised the shooting of hundreds of thousands of Chaffinches and Bramblings every autumn. In autumn 2009, Lombardy widely extended this irregular lifting of the hunting ban to include Hawfinches and Meadow Pipits. The quotas in Lombardy alone for the 2009/2010 hunting season amount to 497,350 Chaffinches, 94,600 Bramblings, 50,000 Meadow Pipits and 32,000 Hawfinches!

Since the mid-1990s CABS has filed complaints against this illegal practice in the regional administrative courts. The hunting exemptions in Lombardy have been reversed by the courts almost every year. The European Court of Justice has condemned the practice of the continuing contraventions of the ÈU bird protection guidelines in Lombardy as a result on a number of occasions.

In 2008 a complaint made by us to the administrative high court in Rome was upheld and the practice of granting hunting exemptions was ruled illegal. As despite this success in the courts exemptions permitting the shooting of protected birds are still granted, we have again initiated complaints in Rome and Brussels.

9. Restriction of the hunting season

In order to alleviate the effects of the comprehensive exemptions to hunting regulations (see Para. 8), CABS and the LAC have demanded of the Lombardy government that they reduce the number of days on which hunting is permitted. At present hunting is banned throughout Italy on all Tuesdays and Fridays, leaving 5 days a week for hunting.

The Lombardy government has approved our proposal and the number of hunting days per week will be reduced to four for the 2009/2010 season.

10. Sale of birds in butchers’ shops

Butcher's shop offering song birds for saleButcher's shop offering song birds for saleFor some time now many butchers’ shops in Northern Italy again offer song birds for sale. These are almost always Spanish Sparrows, allegedly imported from Tunisia. Although this practice is clearly forbidden under EU legislation, the Italian nature protection law is vague on the matter.

CABS has researched this matter for a whole year and commissioned a legal expertise. The result is that the sale of Sparrows is also legally forbidden in Italy. All our documentation was presented to the forest police headquarters in Rome. Since the end of October 2009, butchers’ shops in Bergamo and Brescia have been checked and song birds on sale seized.

11. Cost of the CABS operation

The cost of this year’s operation amounted to some 21,500 Euros. In addition we incurred some 6,000 Euros legal costs for the appeals against various amendments to regional hunting regulations. The Karl Kaus Foundation for Wildlife and Nature (Bremen) assisted with a generous donation to the costs of the Brescia operation.

Address & Contact
Komitee gegen den Vogelmord e.V. (CABS)
And er Ziegelei 8
D-53127 Bonn

Tel.: +49 228/665521 Fax.: +49 228/665280

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