They love nature, take care of the environment and want enough animals and birds around so that they can kill them. That, at any rate, is the word on the 300,000 hunters who since mid-August have been able once again to engage in their beloved sport – legally, according to Greek law, illegally, according to the European Union. And once again, the country will be dragged before the European Court since it has chosen to kowtow to the interests of a small segment of society, which, it seems, wields considerable influence. Perhaps it would be a challenge for a country of such great natural beauty to opt for exactly the opposite course of action: Instead of engaging in fancy legal footwork to please the hunting lobby, hunting could be banned in entire prefectures for a specific period of time. Moreover, those of us, many times more numerous, with no love for the sport would raise no objections, in order for us to enjoy a walk in the countryside in peace and quiet. After such an experiment in certain areas, it would be possible to say for certain whether hunting activities are really beneficial to nature. The decision For many species of game animals, February 29 has been ordained as the end of the hunting season, according to a decision by the Ministry of Agriculture. Hunting season deadlines in each member state should comply with the limits set by the European Birds Directive (79/409/EEC of April 2, 1979). While this does not stipulate specific dates, it does say that birds cannot be hunted during migration or breeding seasons. Following research, these periods have been delimited for each bird and set out in a table by the ORNIS committee, an EU body assisting the European Commission in the implementation of the Birds Directive. This year’s decision by the Agriculture Ministry abides by those hunting deadlines – keeping just within legal limits. But it sets different dates for similar-looking birds, or birds that could be confused in bad light. In practice, that means a hunter, at the moment he lifts his gun, would have to make a split-second decision as to whether the duck he was aiming at was a northern shoveler or a common pochard, and also recall that in February, the former can be hunted and the latter cannot. In addition, somebody knowledgeable of the different species of birds would have to check whether the law was being followed or not. Even if this were to happen, only the letter of the law would be followed. The decision does not serve the basic purpose of the legislation: to conserve bird species by protecting them while breeding. The sound of shots would surely be enough to put any species off the idea of reproducing. How would a common pochard know that bullets fired in February were not actually meant for it? Presumably, the regulation is for show, or rather to impress the European Union, which is singularly undeceived, however. France has been condemned over precisely the same issue, that of staggered hunting deadlines. According to Costas Papaconstantinou, president of the Greek Ornithological Society, the hunting of all species should end on January 31. Normally, to determine hunting deadlines, studies should have been carried out on the state of bird populations. But such studies are carried out only by hunters, for obvious reasons. The number of species that can be hunted is limited, much to hunters’ chagrin. The hunting of all birds of prey is forbidden, as is that of storks, pelicans, night birds, geese, herons, cuckoos and many other species. Hunting is also forbidden in many parts of the country: in the heartlands of national parks; in wetlands of international importance as defined under the Ramsar Convention; in specially protected areas; on islands smaller than 50,000 square meters; within settlements or 250 meters (825 feet) beyond residential areas. These are large expanses, which, however, are not monitored. Wardens are few and far between, apart from the 400 gamekeepers who have been hired by the hunting associations themselves. But given the number of spent cartridges found in the heart of national parks, clearly they are insufficient. In any case, national parks present an enormous temptation since game in these areas is much more abundant precisely because of the ban on hunting. Threat to birds Unfortunately, hunting does not hurt game birds alone. Many birds that are protected species end up with bullet wounds and in animal shelters. In 2001, two months prior to the end of the hunting season and before the Christmas period, when the holidays swell hunters’ ranks, 82 birds, most of them very rare, were brought to the wild animal hospital on Aegina (EKPAZ). But hunting also poses a threat to birds that are not an immediate target. A typical example is Eleonora’s falcon, a migratory bird of prey. Sixty-five percent of the global population nests, breeds and rears its young on the Aegean Islands. It is estimated that only 4,000 pairs exist worldwide. It migrates to Greece in April, remains for the duration of the summer and leaves for Madagascar in October. Autumn is the season when it rears its young. It exploits the migratory season to hunt other bird species to feed its offspring. But the sound of shots frightens Eleonora’s falcon into hiding, and the young birds die.