Les Landes and the Ortolan

This fall, the illegal hunting of birds is much in the news and I am reminded of a September, two years ago when we filmed our story about the trapping of the Ortolan bunting in Les Landes, France.

The Ortolan Bunting is a beautiful little songbird that used to be common but has declined in the last 30 or 40 years. Each fall the Ortolan migrate from all over Europe to their wintering grounds in Africa. The Ortolan are largely grain eaters, and they spend the summer working on building up their fat reserves so they can survive this long migration. It is their diet and their fat that makes them particularly appealing to humans, as they are delicious to eat, and in France there is a long-standing tradition of doing just that.

Napoleon granted the right to hunt and trap small birds to the peasants. The large game was reserved for the noblemen. To this day this tradition continues. Les Landes is an important stop over site for the migrating Ortolan. It is also a battleground between Hunters who continue to trap (and eat) the bird and activists who wish to put an end to this practice. Trapping of the Ortolan bunting was banned in 1999, yet despite the fact the hunt is illegal the French authorities turn a blind eye. The stakes are high.

Ortolan in cage

To tell this story we filmed with the hunters and with the activists who touch down each year, at the same time as the migrating Ortolan. Their mission is to protect the birds. The activist groups unofficial leader was Andrea Rutigliano, an Investigations Officer. With CABS, Committee Against Bird Slaughter, Andrea, an Italian anthropologist has been doing this kind of work all over Europe for almost 20 years. He speaks five different languages, loves birds, knows his politics and his science. Science is key in this battle as local hunters defend their right to trap, believing that the hunt is sustainable and the numbers affected by trapping are pale in comparison to other problems the birds face. That said, in France the nesting population of Ortolan is in danger of extinction.

Ortolan investigation

As a recent article in The Guardian states 25 million birds are illegally killed each year in the Mediterranean, and nearly half the killings occur in EU states where the hunting of songbirds is banned and there is a massive failure of governments and the authorities to act. In the Messenger, Andrea tells us “You cannot defend a tradition that is not sustainable anymore… a tradition is not something that must be kept alive at any cost.”

Wise words. You can see the entire scene in The Messenger.

Ortolan Gendarmerie