A red-listed skylark. Gallingao_media/Shutterstock

Endangered British birds to be killed under permits – here’s how that could fuel an illegal pan-European trade

License holders will be allowed to kill some of Britain’s most endangered bird species under temporary permits licensed by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. The monitoring and enforcement of these permits relies on self-reporting and regulation – loopholes which could be exploited to feed the demand for illegal bird products in Europe.

The birds at risk throughout England and Wales include species whose numbers are threatened in the UK, according to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Bullfinches, meadow pipits and oystercatchers are all included in the permits and are amber-listed for intermediate conservation priority. Another species, the skylark, will be subject to licensed killing despite the RSPB red-listing it as a critical conservation priority for the UK.

Both Natural England and Natural Resources Wales are sponsored by central government and are responsible for “promoting nature conservation” and “protecting people and the environment” according to their websites. They cite safety concerns to justify granting the permits and claim killing birds could prevent damage to crops and reduce interference with air traffic.

Although the permits strictly outline the overall number of birds that are allowed to be killed, monitoring and enforcing this will be crucial. By licensing the shooting, trapping, and killing of songbirds in the UK, the government could be offering a route for supplying dead birds to the illicit trade across Europe.

Serbian police seize a shipment of 56 dead birds. EPA/Serbian Government Press Office

A new supplier for Europe’s illicit trade

The illegal bird trade within the European Union is thought to be worth at least €10m a year. This doesn’t just refer to the trade in exotic species from outside Europe, but includes the widespread trade of songbirds for human consumption – particularly in parts of France and northern Italy where songbirds are regarded as forbidden delicacies.

Dishes such as ortolan bunting or polenta ucelli – polenta with roasted songbird – are synonymous with luxury and prestige. Other songbirds such as sparrows and thrushes are trapped and eaten throughout Italy and Cyprus.

The trade in songbirds makes for quick profits: one gram of songbird meat is estimated to sell for the equivalent of one gram of marijuana. The trapping and consumption of songbirds is widely illegal across the European Union, but it still occurs illegally in some member states such as France and Italy. Although the 1981 UK Wildlife and Countryside Act forbids wild birds being sold for food or shot for sport, enforcing this rule may be difficult to guarantee under the permits.

Recent seizures illustrate that although the European bird trade is a lucrative branch of the illicit global trade in wildlife, it was neither part of the discussions nor mentioned in the declaration released after the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in October 2018. The omission highlights that policy makers often turn a blind eye to Europe as a thriving market for illegal wildlife products, particularly those items that are “less attractive” or of a lower profile than rhino horn or ivory.

Demand driven by European consumers is one of the key issues that policymakers often fail to address. The UK government has tried to position itself as a world leader on this issue, but its decision to grant licences to shoot endangered bird species – even in small numbers – undermines this.

Ortolan bunting are consumed in many European restaurants. Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock

When one door closes, another opens

Even strict conservation laws are often difficult to enforce as legal and illegal activities become intertwined. For example, licensed hunters may hold the correct permits, but might use illegal methods, such as using calling devices or decoys to attract birds in greater numbers.

While the illegal killing of birds has received much more attention in the last couple of years, we still know too little about its commercial side. What drives demand? How are illegal products trafficked? How much profit do they bring in and what groups benefit? Which bird species are trafficked for human consumption and which for the pet market? There is simply a lack of official and up-to-date data on the networks, routes and products of this trade.

Due to such uncertainty, there is a failure to grasp how changes in conservation laws in the UK could export criminal activity to other regions. A good example is the flourishing hunting tourism industry in Serbia, which caters particularly to hunters from Italy and Malta who have shifted their hunting abroad to avoid strict regulations in place at home. If a door is closed to supplying this trade, another is opened elsewhere, and so the source simply moves.

Hunting parties are difficult to police and are part of a thriving industry. Nanostock/Shutterstock

There is cause to worry that songbird killing and trapping opportunities in the UK could prove to be another supply route for the pan-European trade. Policing those who are issued permits may encounter the same problems that regulating the protection of birds has met elsewhere in the UK. The RSPB published a report in 2017 that found a striking 67% of crimes against birds of prey in the UK were committed by gamekeepers and that self-regulation had evidently failed.

Other studies also found a correlation between the persecution of birds of prey and grouse shooting. For example, where birds of prey pose a hindrance to grouse shooting, gamekeepers may destroy their nests. Although complex structures are in place to prosecute wildlife crime in the UK, the RSPB found that in 2017 only four out of 68 cases of crimes against birds of prey were prosecuted.

Given these difficulties in enforcing existing regulations, how can we be certain that those songbirds which are legally trapped or killed in the UK do not feed the demand for illegal songbirds in European restaurants? The seizures of illegal songbird shipments from the Balkans into the EU have shown that geographic distance and national borders pose no significant obstacle. Due to these challenges in monitoring and enforcing the regulations, the government’s permission to grant licenses to kill endangered bird species in Britain – even for public health or safety reasons – not only threaten bird populations but also undermine efforts to tackle the illegal trade in bird products in Europe.

This article was amended on February 4 2019 to clarify the role of the permits and the responsibilities of Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.