Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a morning each September when 800,000 Italian men wake up early, load their rifles, go out into the countryside and blast away at some starlings. I once stayed with a landowner in Tuscany who refused to allow any slaughter of small inedible birds on his property. A neighbour had erected scaffolding within millimetres of the edge of this man's land, to give him an uncluttered view above the treetops of any sparrows that had somehow survived the avian holocaust. I yield to no one in my Italophilia, but this is one area in which the indigenous male could brush up on his game.

This week, the Birdman (BBC2) took up the story. The birdman is Iolo Williams, a likeable chap in his mid-30s who works for the RSPB in Wales. I first caught sight of Williams two years ago in Visions of Snowdonia, in which his passion for birds and his seething contempt for nest raiders practically burned a hole in the screen, so it's no surprise that he now has his own show. Most of the series has been about his work in protecting and nurturing birds of prey and other rare breeds in Wales, and it has been a far more studied and enlightening trip to the Celtic wilds than anything in Heartland FM. This week, though, he went to Italy to see how LIPU, the Italian RSPB, copes with the hunting season.

The Italian peninsula, he explained, is an important migratory funnel connecting Europe to Africa. Birds that fly down its length, in other words, are like Sarajevans running the gauntlet of sniper's alley, or the French sucked into the range of the English longbow at Agincourt. They haven't got a prayer. Williams was predictably astonished by the "ack-ack" of "bandoleros killing larks" when he flung open his hotel window on the first morning of the season. But the question that neither he nor the programme could adequately answer was: what the hell is the point of shooting starlings? The hunters who might have enlightened him tended to run away at the sight of a camera. And the one that did talk seemed to have smoked his larynx into oblivion, and could do no more than hiss. The programme could also have done more to explain the vexed history of the anti-hunting legislation. A voice-over by Juliet Stevenson, even recorded as it was here over a nose-blocking cold, is always top-of-the-range ear candy, but the script might have given her more information to impart.

I've always wondered whether bird-killing machismo might be of a piece with that cornerstone of the Italian male psyche that thinks it's OK to hassle female tourists. There isn't a law against it, so why not do it? There is a law against trapping birds, however. Moving up north to the Alpine foothills, Williams inspected the damage to the robin population, which is lured into elaborately sprung traps that break the birds' legs and leave them to dangle to death. Again, you wanted to know what anyone would do with the corpse of a robin, although there was less doubt about what Williams would do with its predator. "Just as well I don't work here," he said, cradling a red-breasted victim, "because if I caught someone, I would bloody kill him."