Haring into the jaws of death

THESSALONIKI – An operation by hunting clubs to release imported hares and other game into the Greek countryside has proved to be futile, as a survey has shown that most of these live only a few days while a tiny number manage to make it a few weeks. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Thessaloniki University’s Forestry and Natural Environment Department, which carried out the survey, also found that these animals cause problems. Hares imported from countries such as Bulgaria and Italy could bring diseases with them, while partridges released in areas inhabited by the Greek rock partridge lead to the degeneration of the species due to hybridization. The scientists focused on hares and partridges as these are the most hunted game species in Greece. A satellite used to study the habitats of the rock partridge in Epirus, northern Greece, showed why the area is considered to be the home of this species in Greece and why the bird features so largely in the folk songs and the names of villages in the region. Professor Nikolaos Papageorgiou, scientific director of the survey, told Kathimerini that two separate studies had been carried out. These confirmed their suspicions about partridges released by hunting clubs to increase game numbers during the hunting season. These animals fell easy prey to carnivores in the forest as they had been bred in captivity and had not learnt to escape from their natural predators. The research group wanted to evaluate the hares’ chances of survival once released. It released 25 hares, wearing collars fitted with radio transmitters, into the forests of Seikh Sou, Thessaloniki, and Vavdos, Halkidiki. Within a week, predators such as foxes, eagles, martens and stray dogs had made short work of them. Only one of the hares in the Seikh Sou forest lasted more than a month. «It only lasted as long as it did because of the reduced number of predators in Seikh Sou after the forest fire of 1997. In the Vavdos forest, not one hare lasted longer than six days,» said Papageorgiou. «Every attempt to release grown animals into the wild has been an abject failure. They cannot adapt to life in the wild and are easy game for their natural enemies, which they have not learnt to avoid,» he added. In other countries, attempts have been made to «teach» these animals to evade predators. For example, a fox or ferret is occasionally released into an fenced-in area so that the animals learn to evade it. One method could be the controlled reduction of natural predators, he explained, but things are simpler in Greece. By restricting poaching, we can boost the native species’ habitats by providing extra feed and water during difficult periods such as winter, enabling them to survive and multiply. Satellites and partridges A satellite study of the Alectoris graeca (rock partridge) in Epirus was made with the help of army survey maps and Agriculture Ministry services. The satellites SPOT 3 and 4, particularly the latter, provided the laboratory with data on the area’s geomorphology, vegetation, bodies of water, fallow and cultivated land, indicating the partridge’s habitat with a 92-percent accuracy. At the same time, the researchers made a statistical survey of the presence of partridges in different habitats, recording the number and position of nests and fitting radio collars onto the birds. As a result, they were able to estimate the total population of this species in Epirus, along with data on mating, nesting, feeding habits, the birds’ calls and practice of taking sandbaths. Experts can now work out from a bird’s call and the colors of its head whether it is an Alectoris graeca or a hybrid. The study was deemed necessary because of the yearly clash between hunters and environmentalists over whether to reduce the length of the hunting season. The ministry’s game department hoped the study would show whether hunting reduced the partridge population. Based on the findings, it could draw up a program to monitor the species. The researchers concluded that the rock partridge population in the region was about 18,000 in 1999, 17,000 in 2000 and 18,480 in 2001. Most (63.2 percent) live in the prefecture of Ioannina, followed by Arta, Thesprotia and Preveza. So it appears that the population has remained stable and is not as affected by hunting as it is by natural predators (martens, weasels and predatory birds) during the breeding season. They say that a plan to control the population of carnivorous mammals would allow more hunting without reducing the partridge population. Of the partridges released into the wild by the research team, only one in 21 managed to lay eggs, as birds not born in the wild are much more vulnerable both to hunters and their natural enemies. Another experiment clearly demonstrated the danger of hybridization in the wild when an Alectoris chukar (the chukar) that nests in Crete, the Aegean islands and Eastern Thrace was able to mate with a rock partridge from Epirus. Therefore scientists suggest banning the release of these partridges in mainland Greece so as not to endanger the rock partridge. They also recommend that the hunting of game should depend on the results of an occasional census. Successful breeding can be encouraged by putting out water troughs for birds and cultivating abandoned fields.