Hunting of Curlews in France in winter 2019/20 has been suspended, following a formal complaint to the French Council of State (the supreme court for administrative justice), by the French Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux (LPO – the French BirdLife partner).The French Ministry of Ecology (Ministère de la transition écologique et solidaire) had previously issued a decree on 31 July 2019 authorizing shooting of up to 6,000 Curlews throughout French territory during the 2019/20 hunting season, but following the LPO complaint, an order from the Council of State has revised this decree, since it did not establish a zero bag limit.
The LPO based its arguments on France’s obligations under the European Union’s Birds Directive and AEWA (the Afro-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), and was supported by letters from a large number of bodies outside France, including one sent on behalf of the Curlew Forum.
As noted in the Council of State’s response, the Curlew has remained on the official French list of species which may be hunted since 1987. However, in view of the species’ unfavourable conservation status, a five year moratorium on Curlew hunting in France was established from 2008; this moratorium was lifted in February 2012, allowing hunting along the French coast (where the majority of wintering Curlews occur in France). An annual total bag limit of 6,000 Curlews was established and, from the beginning of the 2019/20 hunting season, the area of permitted hunting was extended to cover the whole of the territory of mainland France.
The basis of the French argument for allowing hunting of Curlews was: on one hand, while the decline of the Curlew across north-western Europe is well documented and recognised, Curlews wintering in France originate mainly in north-eastern Europe (Finland, Russia, Belarus), where there is no proof of a decline in breeding numbers – though ringing and re-sighting efforts there are low in comparison with the rest of Europe; and on the other hand, counts of wintering Curlews, including birds originating in the north-east, suggest there may even be an increase. Ringing results certainly show that the majority of Curlews wintering in France, and in particular those along the French Atlantic coast come from north-eastern populations, but there certainly are also ringing recoveries in France of birds from Poland, Germany, The Netherlands and UK, where intensive conservation measures are under way; furthermore, it seems likely that, in the event of cold winter conditions along the Atlantic coast of Europe, many wintering Curlews would seek refuge further south in France.
Under the European Birds Directive, Member States are required to maintain the population of the species (Article 2), and to ensure that the hunting of species does not jeopardise conservation efforts in their distribution area (Article 7.1).
The Curlew Action Plan developed under AEWA requires that any hunting of Curlew should take place only within the framework of an ‘Adaptive Harvest Management plan’. An expert group on adaptive management has been established in France; in May 2019, the group, in their report to the French ministry, were not able to evaluate the impact of hunting on the species’ population dynamics or to define a sustainable hunting bag. Significant knowledge gaps and related uncertainties (linked to available data on the demography of the species, the spatial distribution of populations and to hunting practices in France) were considered too great for the group to make relevant recommendations. As a result, and given the risks that hunting would cause to threatened populations of Curlew, the expert group recommended to the ministry not to authorise any shooting of Curlew until such knowledge gaps were filled.
Considering the unfavourable conservation status of European populations and the significant lack of adaptive management plan required for such threatened populations, the French Council of State ordered the ministerial decree to be modified by the establishment of a zero bag limit, in order to fulfil France’s obligations under European and AEWA regulations, as recommended by the expert group on adaptive management.
The suspension of Curlew hunting in France will be warmly welcomed by Curlew enthusiasts in north-western Europe, and indeed elsewhere. It should provide encouragement to scientists and to bird-watchers who contribute to national and international surveys of waterbirds to collect more and better data on the origins and distribution of Curlews, especially on breeding birds in the north-eastern area of the breeding distribution, and on wintering area in more southerly areas of Europe and Africa.
Let’s make sure that the Eurasian Curlew doesn’t go the way of the Slender-billed and Eskimo Curlews, now both almost certainly extinct.