(CN) — French bird hunters that use an old, but controversial, technique to trap wild birds with glue won a legal victory on Thursday when a European magistrate found the practice acceptable on cultural grounds.
For centuries, people around the world have caught birds by trapping them on branches smeared with an adhesive, a practice known as glue traps or bird lime. But this method of hunting is considered brutal, and it’s banned across the European Union except in five departments of southern France.
French conservation groups and the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, are trying to end the practice in those five departments, arguing in legal filings it’s a cruel tradition that also traps a wide range of birds, including those that can’t be hunted because they are threatened with extinction.
The practice involves coating a branch or twig with a sticky material and putting it in a tree or bush. Birds are unable to fly after their feathers get stuck together and drop to the ground. French hunters use birds caught with glue traps as decoys by capturing them and subsequently using them to attract other songbirds when they are put back out in the wild.
On Thursday, an advocate general of the European Court of Justice issued a legal opinion approving French laws that permit the limited use of glue traps in southern France to catch thrushes and blackbirds. French hunters say bird lime is a traditional hunting method that needs to be preserved. Legal challenges in the past have failed to stop the practice.
Advocates general to the Luxembourg-based court, Europe’s highest legal body, offer legal opinions that serve as nonbinding guidance for the court’s judges. Their opinions often, but not always, indicate how the court will ultimately rule.
Advocate General Juliane Kokott’s finding came in a case brought by two French conservation groups, Association One Voice and the Bird Protection League, accusing hunters in southern France of abusing the use of glue traps. They took their case to France’s Council of State, a high court overseeing administrative justice in France. The Council of State asked European Court of Justice to rule on whether the use of glue traps is compatible with a 2009 EU directive on bird conservation.
Directives are legal acts the EU’s transnational political bodies agree on to achieve policy goals. Directives passed by the EU cover a wide range of topics from wildlife preservation to copyright rules. Member states are required to pass legislation to meet the goals of directives, but each state has a lot of leeway in crafting laws to meet those goals.
Kokott found that France’s bird-protection laws are compatible with the EU Birds Directive because glue traps are a “regionally widespread traditional hunting method for recreational purposes” and of “significant cultural importance.”
She said those were good enough reasons to allow continuation of the practice, though she said it needs to be closely monitored and controlled to make sure hunters don’t endanger other bird species and do not snag large numbers of birds this way.
She noted the French law restricts the number of licenses and requires hunters to only catch a small number of birds for their personal use as decoys. The French law also requires hunters not to leave the glue traps unattended and to clean off birds they aren’t supposed to catch and release them, she noted.
“Permission to hunt using limes in the regions concerned is indubitably appropriate and necessary to enable that hunting method to be preserved,” she wrote. “The preservation of a traditional hunting method for recreational purposes may be recognized as a judicious use of the bird species concerned.”
Bird conservationists, though, argue that any bird that gets stuck is damaged, and that hunters get away with using the traps to kill a wide range of birds they’re not allowed to.
Even though the EU Birds Directive bans the use of bird lime, Kokott said the directive allows member states certain exceptions, what are known as derogations from directives.
The 2009 Bird Directive was an update to the EU’s first environmental piece of legislation passed in 1979, when the EU was still in its early phases of crafting Europe-wide legislation. At the time, bird conservation was an obvious transnational concern because so many birds are migratory.
Under the 2009 directive, member states are required to protect 194 types of birds deemed threatened and ensure that other commonly hunted bird species are preserved through limits on catch and other measures such as seasonal restrictions. The directive also bans many types of hunting besides bird lime, including the use of snares, mirrors, poisons, nets, lights, rifles equipped with multiple rounds of ammunition and night-time sighting devices on rifles.
About 32% of the 500 species of birds in Europe are in poor state, according to the European Commission, and divisions over bird lime usage is longstanding.
In August, French President Emmanuel Macron suspended bird lime hunting pending a resolution to legal challenges. While the case brought by French conservation groups has been underway, the European Commission warned this summer it was ready to sue France at the Court of Justice unless it banned the practice. The commission is also threatening legal action against France for allowing the use of nets and traps to hunt skylark and pigeons.
French bird hunters are given a quota of birds they can kill with glue traps. In 2019, they were allowed to kill about 42,000 birds. Hunting groups say the glue traps do not accidentally catch rare birds.
Bird conservationists say France’s bird hunters must be reined in, noting that France allows 64 bird species to be hunted while the average number is 30 across the EU.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in European Union.