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WILDLIFE

French countryside sees alarming ‘collapse’ of bird populations

Bird populations across an eerily quiet French countryside have collapsed, on average, by a third over the last decade-and-a-half, alarmed researchers reported on Tuesday.

French countryside sees alarming 'collapse' of bird populations
Photo: AFP

Dozens of species have seen their numbers decline, in some cases by two-thirds, the scientists detailed in a pair of studies, one national in scope and the other covering a large agricultural region in central France.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Benoit Fontaine, a conservation biologist at France's National Museum of Natural History and co-author of one of the studies.

“Our countryside is in the process of become a veritable desert,” he said in a communique released by the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), which also contributed to the findings.

The common white throat, the ortolan bunting, the Eurasian skylark and other once-ubiquitous species have all fallen off by at least a third,
according a detailed, annual census initiated at the start of the century.

A migratory song bird, the meadow pipit, has declined by nearly 70 percent.

The culprit, researchers speculate, is the intensive use of pesticides on vast tracts of monoculture crops, especially wheat and corn.

The problem is not that birds are being poisoned, but that the insects on which they depend for food have disappeared.

“There are hardly any insects left, that's the number one problem,” said Vincent Bretagnolle, a CNRS ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies in
Chize.

Recent research, he noted, has uncovered similar trends across Europe, estimating that flying insects have declined by 80 percent, and bird
populations has dropped by more than 400 million in 30 years.

In France, data crossed from the two studies — one national, one regional — also suggested industrial-scale agriculture was to blame.

“What is really alarming, is that all the birds in an agricultural setting are declining at the same speed, even 'generalist' birds,” which also thrive
in other settings such as wooded areas, said Bretagnolle.

“That shows that the overall quality of the agricultural ecosystem is deteriorating.”

Figures from the national survey — which relies on a network of hundreds of volunteer ornithologists — indicate that the overall decline intensified in 2016 and 2017.

ENVIRONMENT

No more shooting to scare Pyrenees bears, French court rules

Livestock owners in the French Pyrenees can no longer fire warning shots to scare off endangered bears, a court ruled on Friday, handing a victory to animal rights groups who warned of the risk of accidental deaths.

No more shooting to scare Pyrenees bears, French court rules
Tensions over the presence of brown bears in the Pyrenees have run high for decades. Photo: AFP

Tensions over the presence of brown bears in mountains separating France and Spain have run high since a re-introduction effort was launched in the mid-1990s.

Farmers were furious when the government stepped up its efforts with a 10-year “bear plan” in 2018, mounting fierce protests when the first female was brought in by helicopter that year.

They say the warning shots are needed to keep the predators from killing sheep and other livestock or destroying bee hives, and authorities began allowing them on a trial basis in 2019.

But the State Council, the country's top administrative court, struck down the measure after around a dozen pro-bear associations filed a complaint.

It said warning shots are not compatible with “maintaining the populations in their natural environment.”

Contacted by AFP, the environment ministry did not immediately comment.

In a joint statement, the associations welcomed the ruling, saying the decree “made it possible to get around the ban on intentionally disturbing a protected species.”

Three bears were killed in the Pyrenees last year, including one by a hunter who said he acted in self-defence.

In January, the European Commission called on France to rapidly carry out new re-introductions to replace them, as called for in its “bear plan.”

 
There are about 50 bears currently in the Pyrenees, and French officials have said early indications point to a reduction in the number of livestock killed by them last year, after 1,173 animals were killed and 36 bee hives destroyed in 2019.
 
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