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Brescia Bird Protection Camp 01.10 - 13.11.2011

Final Report

A CABS team member dismantles illegal bow trapsA CABS team member dismantles illegal bow trapsThe North Italian Brescia Province (Lombardy) is a major European poaching hotspot. Nowhere else in the EU are hunters and poachers so thick on the ground.

The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) has been active in the Brescia region since 1984. This year our 25th annual international bird protection camp in the Brescia Mountains took place from 1.10 - 13.11.2011. During the core period from 1 - 31.10.2011 some 72 conservationists from throughout the EU participated - in the following two weeks, when we decided at short notice to extend the camp, a further five Italian CABS members conducted anti-poaching operations.

A grand total of 1,653 traps and 94 nets were seized and, on the basis of information provided by our reconnaissance teams to the police, 37 poachers were arrested.

1. Methods

Until the middle of the 1990s our efforts were exclusively concentrated on the dismantling of traps and nets by our teams. Since then we adapted our tactics and gave priority to assisting the law enforcement agencies in arresting trappers. Our volunteers were tasked with employing their excellent local and specialist knowledge to detect illegal trapping installations and later to guide police patrols to these locations. The police then set ambushes at these sites in order to catch poachers red-handed.

CABS member (right) and police officers carrying out an inventory of confiscated live decoy birdsCABS member (right) and police officers carrying out an inventory of confiscated live decoy birds We fine-tuned this tactic over the years and today we have a special relationship of trust between our volunteers and the law enforcement agencies operating in the Brescia Mountains. Our main partner is the State Forest Police (Corpo Forestale dello Stato). Every year in autumn up to 50 officers from the special unit for combating poaching (NOA - Nucleo Operativo Antibracconaggio) are stationed in the Brescia region. We also work closely with the local forest and provincial police.

In 2011 the camp participants were deployed in small teams (1 - 3 persons) to find bird traps and nets. They used vehicles with Italian registration plates to travel from our base to the operating area and then moved off-track on foot in order not to alert the poachers.

As soon as a trapping site was located the team gathered as much information as possible, for example the number of traps and nets and concealed approaches, without compromising the location. They also determined whether a day or a night police ambush was the most suitable.

Trapping sites that could be approached under cover in daylight were immediately reported to the police. Sites which could only be approached under cover of darkness, i.e. those in close proximity to houses, were reported at the daily operational meeting with the police HQ and a time plan was agreed on. One of the team members then guided a police patrol to the site during the next couple of days.

2. Results

The brutal traps break the birds legsThe brutal traps break the birds legsThe 2011 camp participants found a total of 99 active trapping sites. These contained 1,065 bow traps, 588 snap traps and 94 mist nets. Some 63 trapping installations were suitable for ambushes and were shown to the police. Only 56 ambushes were set; in seven cases the traps had been dismantled in the meantime by the poachers themselves. The police operations resulted in the arrest of 37 poachers. At the remaining 19 sites the ambushes were unsuccessful as the poachers had clearly abandoned their trap lines. CABS team themselves dismantled the traps at a further 36 installations that were unsuitable for police operations.

2.1 Bow traps

This year find of only 1,065 bow traps was the lowest ever total for this brutal instrumentrecorded during our Brescia bird protection camps . In 2001, in only three weeks of operations, we found a total of 12,104 bow traps, and last year, in a five week period, 1,228. This traditional hunting method is cleary well on the way to finally dying out.

2.2 Snap traps

This type of trap, found in Brescia for the first time in 1998, became rapidly popular with poachers. In 1998 we found four traps, ten years later in 2008 949 snap traps were found - a sad record. This year’s total of 588 lies in the middle. The increase in this type of trap is that it can be easily concealed. Whereas the traditional bow traps are spiked with red berries and hung about one metre high in a bush, the snap traps are primarily set out on the ground. The devices are made of metal and are therefore often rusty and almost earth coloured. A mealworm serves as bait (see Para 3.1)..

2.3 Nets

A lucky Robin  -  freed unharmed from the netA lucky Robin - freed unharmed from the netThe number of nets found during our camps fluctuates greatly. 2005 was a record year with 174 nets, in 2008 we found only 108 and last year 115. The 94 nets found and dismantled this year are the lowest number since 2004. The reason for the decrease in the past two years is undoubtedly the large number of poachers caught red-handed at their nets in 2008 and 2009.

As in previous years we have noted a marked decline in the number of live decoy birds found at the nets. The poachers set them out in small cages and this makes the nets more effective with a corresponding detrimental effect on birds. This year we found only 31 live decoys at net installations - the lowest number ever.

2.4 Poachers caught

The main objective of our Brescia operations is to assist the authorities in the arrest of poachers. Until 2007 the police officers only set ambushes at particularly large trapping installations. This led to between 12 to 25 poachers being caught red-handed every year. Since 2007 the police also set ambushes at smaller trapping sites with a corresponding increase in the number of arrests to as many as 57 in 2008. The 37 poachers caught attending their traps in 2011 are fewer in comparison. The figures reflect on the one hand a general decline in poaching, but on the other that the poachers have become more wary (see Para. 3.2).

3. Evaluation of the results

In almost every aspect poaching in Brescia is in decline. In 2011 the number of bow traps found was the lowest since the camps began, the number of nets the lowest since 2004, and the number of snap traps significantly lower than the record number found in 2008. The total of arrested poachers is at its lowest since 2007. Several other aspects however give us cause for concern and we will need to radically change our tactics in the coming years.

3.1 Snap traps were only set out on an irregular basis

Snap traps mounted on trees have become a growing problem - they are almost impossible to findSnap traps mounted on trees have become a growing problem - they are almost impossible to findSnap traps are small and easy to set out and the trappers therefore do not leave them continuously in place in order to minimise the risk of being caught. In contrast to the relatively complicated bow traps, they are often set out on only a few days. If a police ambush cannot be organised in a short space of time, an operation at a later stage is therefore almost always doomed to failure.

The poachers increasingly mount the snap traps vertically on branches or tree trunks where they are almost impossible to detect. From 2012 we will only leave snap traps untouched for police operations when these can take place on the same day. If this is not possible we will dismantle the traps immediately.

3.2 Wary poachers

On the basis of our reconnaissance work 343 poachers have been caught red-handed in Brescia since 1999. This large number of arrests had made the poachers more wary from year to year.

In the meantime our teams follow a set of rules that are aimed to prevent the poachers becoming aware of our operations. These include the use of vehicles with Italian registration plates, parking outside the operational area and avoidance of tracks and trails. Great care and time is also taken to find good covered approaches to the traps and nets so that the police can be guided in without being detected. In spite of these precautionary measures the number of abortive operations has increased from year to year. The poachers are now suspicious of the slightest indication of our presence and then abandon their traps or nets

We will react to this development by amending our tactics from next year onwards. New measures will include volunteers taking bright clothing with them so that they can pass for tourists when necessary, particularly in the proximity of towns and villages.

3.3 Poaching in the ‘off-peak‘ season

Great Spotted  Woodpecker in a netGreat Spotted Woodpecker in a netNot least due to our successful operations the ‘trapping season’ in Northern Italy is nowadays significantly shorter. Whereas in the 1990s the poachers were active from about the end of August to the beginning of December, today traps and nets are found as a rule only from the end of September to the beginning of November. The most important trapping period is the peak of Robin migration from about 5 - 25 October. This time-frame is completely covered by our four week bird protection camp. In 2010 and 2011 we had a small rear party that operated in the first two weeks of November. Some poachers have again begun to set out their traps and nets in the ‘off peak’ season, in particular the last 10 days of September and the first ten days of November. The trapping rate is much lower at these times due to the weak migration; but the poachers’ chances of being caught are next to nothing.

We intend to react to these developments and will therefore extend our main autumn camp by a week into November. We will also try to organise and finance operations in mid-September by our Italian partner organisation Lega Abolizione Caccia (LAC). Our main effort at this time is on Cyprus and Malta.

4. Relaxing of hunting regulations and permitting of trapping in Lombardy

As in previous years the Lombardy region, to which Brescia Province belongs, has permitted wide-scale exceptions to the hunting ban on protected bird species and the use of mass net trapping installations.

Shooting orgy on the Colle San Zeno alpine pass on 16.10.2011Shooting orgy on the Colle San Zeno alpine pass on 16.10.2011A special exemption from the hunting law allows the shooting of Chaffinch, Brambling, Hawfinch and Meadow Pipit. In previous years we have appealed against the permission to hunt protected species and have won our cases as a rule. Italian law only however allows for appeals against exceptional permissions and not against laws, which effectively blocked our appeals in 2011. There is a mechanism for annulling laws that can be activated between the regional government and the central government in Rome. The Lega Nord, which is sympathetic to the hunters, has however rendered this mechanism inoperative, thereby allowing the hunters in Lombardy to hunt protected bird species until migration is over.

On 16 and 23.10.2011 participants in the camp, together with our partner organisation LAC, demonstrated on the alpine pass Colle San Zeno against the shooting of finches and pipits and became witnesses of an hour-long massacre of migrating song birds. The German and Italian conservationists were peppered several times by falling shotgun pellets (and dead birds) as the hunters fired recklessly in all direction. This video, which has been online in Youtube since November, shows the extent of the shooting orgy.

Our appeal against the exceptional permissions for the mass trapping of song birds in nets was successful. The regional government in Lombardy had given permission for the operation of 21 trapping installations in Brescia Province to trap thrushes and larks as live decoys for hunting. In the event the huge installations, each with hundreds of metres of nets, were only in operation for three weeks. The installations had to be closed down on 28.10.2011 following a ruling by the administrative court in Milan. The judges accepted our arguments and declared the trapping illegal.

5. Right wingers demonstrate against the forest police

The right extreme political party Lega Nord, that until mid-November was the most important coalition partner in Berlusconi’s government and filled the post of the Environment Minister, organised a demonstration on 22.10.2011 against the presence of the forest police anti-poaching squad in the Brescia Mountains.

Only a handful of people took part in the event, held in the mountain village of Collio (Val Trompia); but the regional press reported the demonstration widely,thereby adding to its political impact. Even though the demonstration had no direct influence on the work of the police, it goes to show just where the Lega Nord, which is represented politically in almost all local councils, stands in respect of hunting. This party is also responsible for the annual issue of illegal exceptions to the law permitting bird hunting and trapping of protected bird species in Northern Italy (see Para. 4).

6. Operations by Game Rangers

A decoy bird (Hawfinch) confiscated from huntersA decoy bird (Hawfinch) confiscated from huntersThe operations of the volunteer game rangers from our partner organisations LAC and WWF (Italy) have been made much more difficult as a result of the new regulations passed by the regional governments. The week-long camps with up to 50 participants that were held up to 2007 are no longer permissible.

The WWF game rangers were deployed on operations in Brescia this autumn on all weekends and the occasional weekday. The LAC game rangers monitored hunting on the Colle San Zeno alpine pass every weekend. CABS provided overnight accommodation for the game rangers and financed some of their travel costs.

7. Incidents

During this year‘s bird protection camp there were thankfully no incidents worth mentioning. For the first time since 1984 there were no attacks on CABS members and none of the hire cars was damaged.

At the very beginning of operations however a hunter shot at a member of the forest police near Iseo. The officer had to have numerous shotgun pellets removed from his knee. The hunter got away with it as he was able to convincingly explain that his action was not intentional!

8. Costs

The total costs of the operation amounted to some 23.000 €. In addition the legal costs of our appeals in the Lombardy and Veneto administrative courts against the exceptions to the hunting law and permits to trap came to some 8,500 €. The Karl Kaus Foundation for Wildlife and Nature supported this year’s bird protection camp with a grant of 9,000 €.

9. Planning for 2012

The Committee’s large scale bird protection next year will take place between 29.9 - 04.11.2012. In addition our Italian partner organisations LAC and WWF (Italy) will be deployed in Brescia Province on the weekends from mid-September until the end of November.

If you are interested in taking part in next year’s operation in Northern Italy, click here to learn more about the conditions - or make contact with our Bonn office.

9. Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the officers of the State Forest Police special anti-poaching unit, the local forest police stations in Brescia and the Brescia provincial police, members of our partner organisation LAC, the wildlife rehabilitation centre in Modena, the game rangers of the LAC, WWF and LIPU, our lawyers Claudio Linzola and partners in Milan, all our sponsors, donors and members, and the Karl Kaus Foundation for Wildlife and Nature (Bremen).

Alexander Heyd, November 2011

Final Brescia report download

You can download the report as PDF below:

Brescia Bird Protection Camp 2011.pdf666.2 KB