Holidaymakers taking their summer vacations rather later than usual this year may be woken by the sound of gunfire echoing from mountain tops – the hunting season is with us again, reviving the dispute between environmentalists and hunters. Hunters range from «serious» seekers of game who would not waste bullets on anything less than the choicest wild boar, to day-trippers who take potshots at anything with wings, but most lump their critics together as bleeding-heart ecologists. Opponents of the sport range from people who think it should be banned on principle, to others concerned at the disappearance of species because of unrestricted hunting. Among the volatile outbursts on both sides, however, there are also measured arguments, and the problem, as with many other issues, appears to be in finding an appropriate balance and getting the authorities to implement existing restrictions and to protect game from poachers. For example, despite legislation banning the hunting of the Balkan chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra balcanica) in Greece, hunters have been seen trapping the animal. In an article in the journal of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, biologist Haritakis Papaioannou said this species is not generally endangered in the European Union as a whole, but in Greece there are only about 10 communities, each numbering 10-70 individuals. Their habitats are being eroded, although these are now gradually being included in protected areas such as national parks and animal sanctuaries. Yet poachers have been seen within the Vrysohori sanctuary in the Tymphi mountain range of northern Greece. The Greek Center for the Care of Wild Animals (EKPAZ) has drawn attention to another problem caused by hunters, who in their haste to «shoot anything in flight,» often hit large birds with small pellets designed to kill smaller species. «As a result, the countryside is full of injured birds who die a slow death, unless they are lucky enough to be found and sent to EKPAZ,» said a recent article in the center’s online magazine. «This year we expect to receive over 4,000 injured animals (compared to 3,000 last year),» it said. Populations of birds such as the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) are threatened because of youngsters wielding airguns, killing the birds for fun, according to the Hellenic Ornithological Society (EOE). The European Commission has accused Greece of failing to respect the provisions of the European Union’s Wild Birds Directive, intended to help ensure «a balance between (hunting) and the long-term interest of maintaining healthy and viable populations of huntable species.» «Unfortunately, Greek rules do not respect these requirements.» The Commission considers that Greek hunting legislation fails to meet the obligation to protect migratory wild birds during their return to breeding grounds, one of the periods of great vulnerability. New hunting legislation passed this summer allows the hunting of water fowl until February 16, in contravention of an EU directive banning the hunting of such birds after January. «The decision is a major concession to the indefensible demands of the National Hunting Federation,» EOE stated in response to the announcement. Greece already faces legal action for violating a European Commission directive for the protection of wild fowl, but was given a reprieve last year on the understanding that there would be no more transgressions. Where wildlife is seriously endangered, such as on small islands on migratory routes, a complete ban on hunting does not seem so drastic – a few years ago on the Dodecanese island of Tilos, the local community unanimously decided to ban all hunting. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bird species on the island, including several that had not been seen for some years. Hunting within limits EOE is not against hunting per se. «The solution to the problem of hunting presupposes an acceptance of the fact that hunting is a legal and (at least de facto) acceptable activity. That is the only way to involve hunters in solving the most serious problems such as poaching, harassing of game and gaps in legislation, solutions that of necessity lead to restrictions,» Costas Papaconstantinou, EOE’s board chairman said in a recent article. But he pointed out that the higher up in the hunting hierarchy one went, the more difficult this became because of the vested interests involved. «The ordinary hunter’s main concern is to be able to continue to hunt. That means there has to be game available… yet they say that the number of game animals has been reduced to a great extent, forcing hunters to travel further afield and buy more expensive equipment,» he said. «However, the views of hunting federations… indicate a totally different picture. According to them, there is an abundance of game… They say that hunting is not threatened because of a lack of game but because of the ‘ecologists’ and anti-hunting legislation which they link with ‘outside’ agents such as the EU,» he added. Some hunters say it is hypocritical for meat-eaters to want to ban hunting. «Why is it acceptable to eat meat that has been reared and butchered in terrible conditions, but unacceptable to shoot hares?» asked one. They point out that for every farm where crops are grown, wild animals have been displaced and more likely killed and that hunting serves society by ensuring the existence of stable game populations and providing income to people in rural areas. Yet hunting as a method of conservation is a fallacy, Papaconstantinou told Kathimerini English Edition yesterday. «No one needs to intervene in nature to ensure a balance. If there are too many of one particular species, for example foxes, it is because other environmental factors have changed, such as the proximity to food sources such as garbage,» he said. «We can say that under certain conditions hunting might not do much harm, if populations are allowed to reproduce and maintain their numbers, but not that it is beneficial in itself. This is a simplistic, populist idea for which there is no scientific evidence,» added Papaconstantinou. The Council of Europe (in Resolution 882 «on the importance of shooting for Europe’s rural regions») calls for a better public understanding of shooting and dialogue between all groups. The problem seems to be in achieving a balance between traditional forms of human activity and the policing of laws. Not all hunters are butchers of wildlife, a great many observe the rules and only shoot what they can eat; they see the sport as a way of getting out into nature in an elemental way. «Those who determine hunting policy should realize that (hunters) are simply ‘land users’ with the specific rights and obligations that go with that use. They should respect the fact that today there are many other users who have the same rights and obligations and who, like them, want nature for recreation,» Papaconstantinou said.