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Italians set to decimate bird cited by Song of Songs as messenger of spring

While Israelis seek to extend one year hunting ban, Rome greenlights shooting of 7.5 million turtledoves in move that could drive species toward extinction

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

European turtledove. (Ehud Fast)
European turtledove. (Ehud Fast)

Bird enthusiasts are up in arms over a decision by the Italian government to allow its hunters to shoot up to 7.5 million turtle doves — a move that could drive the European variant of the iconic species towards extinction.

The European Commission estimates that there are somewhere between 3 to 11 million specimens of the European turtle dove species left on the continent.

Israel is so far the only country in the world where legal hunting of turtle doves has been banned — temporarily. That ban applied to the 2020 hunting season, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is pressing hard to have it extended, if not permanently written into law.

The Song of Songs celebrates spring with the words, “Blossoms have appeared in the land. The season of songbirds has arrived, and cooing of turtle doves is heard in our land.”

According to the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, the Italian government, while attending a meeting about protecting turtle doves, caved into pressure from regional representatives, pressed by the Italian hunting federation, which represents some 500,000 hunters, to allow hunters to shoot up to 15 turtledoves each during the season, from September 1 to 21.

The Italian Ministry of Ecological Transition backed by The Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) had sought a four-year ban on hunting the species.

The birdsEurope’s only long-distance migratory dove — spend a third of the year at their breeding grounds in the Mediterranean — including Israel — and Europe, overwintering in the African Sahel.

A European turtle dover shot dead by a ‘sport’ hunter in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, September 2, 2020. (KKL-JNF Chief Birdwatcher, Yaron Cherka)

Their numbers have been in freefall since the 1970s.

Down by 50 percent in Europe over the last 16 years, drops of more than 90% have been recorded in countries such as the UK.

In light of this rapid decline, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently upgraded the turtle dove’s status from vulnerable to globally threatened — three categories away from extinct.

Jonathan Meyrav, a keen birder since childhood and Director of Tourism and International Events at the SPNI, said that while there are no exact figures for the species in Israel, “from my experience and that of colleagues, there are very steep declines.

“They are officially protected in most countries – except for during the recreational hunting season, when they are legally game. There are supposedly bag limits for each hunter, but they are very difficult to enforce,” he explained.

Hunting is still a widespread sport in southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Malta. Maltese hunters are unusual in that they start shooting turtledoves in spring. Some steps have been taken towards banning turtle dove hunting in France, Meyrav said, but nothing has been changed yet in law.

Jonathan Meyrav. (Courtesy)

Meyrav revealed that the SPNI is to launch and lead a campaign called Year of the Dove in the coming weeks, together with BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organizations, and its branches in Greece, Turkey, Malta and Cyprus. Public events are scheduled for the fall and for spring 2022. Several projects in western Europe are also ongoing.

Asked why the specific focus on the turtle dov, Meyrav said, “Very few species are declining to this extent and given that there is a legal challenge here, we can make a difference. It’s enough to ban recreational hunting to save millions of birds every year.”

Like other species, turtle doves are also suffering from habitat loss, illegal killing and human pressures on their breeding grounds, “but we can do less about this,”  Meyrav added.

European turtledove. (Ehud Fast)

“This is an iconic species — a symbol of loyalty and in some folklore traditions, a symbol of love. Turtle doves have strong and meaningful relationships. They were once so common that everyone recognized their cooing. To lose such a species would be tragic,” he said.

“The turtle dove is today’s equivalent of the Passenger Pigeon of North America, which was hunted to extinction,” he added. “Whichever way you look at it, we need to show that recreational hunting is just wrong. We need to show the decline and hopefully put pressure on governments to restrict hunting and hopefully ban it altogether.”

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