EU Top Court Dings Austria, Finland for Allowing Wild Bird Hunting

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Despite their long cultural traditions, Finland and Austria must abolish the practice of bird hunting under an order issued Thursday by the European Court of Justice.

A Eurasian woodcock, with earthworm. (By Ronald SlabkeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

“By authorizing the spring hunting of male woodcock in the Land of Lower Austria, the Republic of Austria has failed to fulfill its obligations under Article 7 of the Birds Directive,” the EU high court wrote in its ruling in the Finnish case. It found similarly in the case involving Austria

The Birds Directive, which came into force in 2009, aims to protect some 500 native wild bird species in the 27-member political and economic union. 

But many regions in Europe have bird hunting traditions and countries have sought to protect those as cultural rights. 

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, first informed Austria in 2013 that allowing woodcock hunting violated EU regulations. The agency brought legal proceedings a year later after Austria refused to stop the practice.

While Austria banned the practice in two states, woodcock hunting was allowed to continue in the state of Lower Austria with a cap on the number of birds that could be killed. The hunting tradition takes place during the bird’s mating season, making a hunt especially damaging to bird populations. 

Woodcocks are a protected species under the Birds Directive and Austria didn’t show that it had a valid reason to allow spring hunting of the bird, the Luxembourg-based court found Thursday.

The semi-autonomous regional government of the Åland Islands, an archipelago located between Finland and Sweden, reauthorized the springtime hunting of the common eider duck in 2011. The Court of Justice had already ruled in 2005 that such a hunt violated the Birds Directive. The commission called for the practice to be ended in 2012 and brought an infringement claim in 2016 after the islands gave the go-ahead for a 2017 hunt. 

A common eider drake in flight. (By Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland – Eider drake (Somateria mollissima) in flight, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link)

The issue has been a major point of contention for the Åland Islands, which were given special dispensation to continue several practices — including banning non-islanders from owning land on the islands — when Finland joined the European Union in 1995. 

But hunting a protected bird species was not among the preserved practices and the duck population has decreased in recent years, in part because of the hunting practices. 

The authorities did not have “well-established scientific knowledge showing that the population of the species concerned was maintained at a ‘satisfactory’ level,” the seven-judge panel wrote. To justify the continuation of the practice, Finland argued the duck population was large enough to withstand the “small numbers” permitted. Finland used the entire population as a baseline in its calculation, rather than the population on the islands. 

In both cases, Austria and Finland were ordered to pay the commission’s legal costs. 

Thursday’s judgments are but two in a long line of Court of Justice crackdowns on wild bird hunting in the EU.

In 2008, the court ordered Malta to stop allowing the spring hunting of quails and turtle doves. Nearly a decade later, Malta ran afoul of EU law again by letting its citizens trap finches to keep in birdcages — a long tradition in the Mediterranean archipelago.

The Court of Justice is currently closed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic but is still issuing judgments in cases it heard before the outbreak began.

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