Footage of waders being hunted in France has emerged online. The scenes of dead and injured birds make for difficult viewing. One species shown being hunted is the (Eurasian) curlew.

The RSPB and others have argued that the curlew is the UK’s highest avian conservation priority. The UK hosts up to a quarter of the global breeding population, but the UK breeding population is rapidly declining (-48% since 1995) and is Red-listed. Allied to this, curlew are listed as globally Near Threatened by the IUCN, meaning that they “may be considered threatened with extinction in the near future”, and are Vulnerable on the European Red List. There is no other UK-breeding bird that is in as much trouble both here and globally, and for which the UK shoulders so much responsibility.

The fate of two closely related species, the Eskimo curlew (almost certainly extinct) and Slender-billed curlew (highly likely to be extinct) means that warnings of extinction threat for the curlew simply cannot be ignored. Curlew are the focus of considerable conservation efforts to stabilise and reverse their declines across their breeding range, including the UK (national and local initiatives), Ireland, Poland and Germany.  

Following bans on hunting in other countries, France is now the only western European country that continues to permit hunting of curlew. A ‘partial moratorium’ currently prohibits hunting of curlew at inland sites in France, but allows hunting at coastal sites between dates in August and January. The reality is that this probably exposes the majority of curlew that winter in or migrate through France to the threat of hunting. As the video referred to above shows, curlew are currently being hunted in France in autumn 2018. Prior to 2008 it was estimated that 7000-8000 curlew were shot annually in France. The number currently shot is unknown and there is no requirement for collation or reporting of shooting bags.

Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

France is a signatory to AEWA (The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds) which is an is an international treaty dedicated to the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats throughout their entire migratory range. The AEWA international action plan for curlew has an objective to ensure that “any harvest, if undertaken, is sustainable”. This is dependent on the launch of an “adaptive harvest management (AHM) process for the portion of the N. a. arquata population that spend part of the life cycle in France where hunting is permitted”. This goes hand in hand with a corresponding action clearly stating the need to “Reinstate a complete moratorium of hunting in France until the AHM process has established its recommendations which are to be implemented if and when hunting is re-opened.” To date, no such AHM process has been launched and, put simply, the continued hunting in France is a breach of AEWA rules.

Why does hunting curlew in France matter to the rest of Europe?

Tracking indicates that the French wintering population includes birds that breed in Russia, Belarus and Finland. However, we know through ringing that UK-breeding birds have also been recovered in France during the winter or on migration (CV Wernham et al, 2002, The Migration Atlas). Furthermore, a juvenile from the Polish population (numbering just 200-300 pairs), where concerted efforts are being made to protect their remaining curlew, has also reportedly been shot in France. Curlew from breeding populations elsewhere in Europe may also winter or stage in France, however we urgently need to know more about the origins of birds in France (see below).

Supporters of the curlew hunting may claim that numbers of curlew wintering in France are apparently stable or increasing. However, the distribution of wintering waterbirds is known to be shifting (see here and here) within Europe due to climate change, and an apparent increase in the wintering population of a species in one country cannot be used as evidence that the range-wide breeding population of that species is in good health. This applies in particular to curlew, where studies from a range of countries have consistently shown that productivity is below the level required to maintain stable populations.

Continued hunting in France could put at risk the considerable recovery efforts taking place for curlew across Europe, which are being undertaken with large sums of government and private funding.

What needs to happen next?

The first stage of an AHM process must be a robust assessment of whether any curlew mortality from hunting in France can be considered sustainable. This should include data on population size, trends, breeding success and survival rates of curlew from countries across their range, combined with information on their movements between breeding, staging and wintering grounds. This has been successfully achieved for other hunted species such as the Ortolan bunting and certain European Goose species, and is currently underway for Turtle dove.

The next AEWA Meeting of the Parties (MOP) is taking place in South Africa on 4-8 December 2018. The ongoing situation regarding hunting in France must be discussed and we wish to see progress on the AHM process. In the meantime, we demand that the French authorities adhere to the AEWA international action plan for curlew that they are signed up to – and that hunting ceases in the absence of a formal AHM process. At a September 2018 AEWA curlew meeting, the governments of the Netherlands, UK and Norway formally opposed the continued harvest of curlew in France under the partial moratorium in the absence of an international AHM process.

We await the outcome of the discussions at the MOP with interest.

Anonymous