Gummer puts birds in line of French fire

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HUNDREDS of thousands of birds heading for Britain can be shot down by French hunters, European environment ministers agreed last week. Britain failed to object to the plan, which is designed to appease France's neo-fascists before this year's European elections.

The birds, which include some of Britain's rarest species, are falling prey to the Government's drive to weaken European environmental laws as part of its campaign to lessen the influence of Brussels over national affairs.

At a meeting of the ministers in Brussels on Friday, John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, 'cautiously welcomed' plans to change an EU law which prohibits hunting birds as they migrate over France to Britain. The ministers referred the law, the Wild Birds directive, to the European Parliament for amendment.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says that 'hundreds of thousands of migrating birds on their way to the UK may be killed' as a result. They include rare garganey, whimbrel and greenshank, as well as blackbirds, song thrushes, golden plover, curlew and redshank.

'This decision threatens to blow the birds directive apart,' an RSPB spokesman said last night.

The European Court has three times overturned French attempts to allow hunting during the migratory season, causing a minor political crisis. Many of the French hunters - who travel in four-wheel-drive vehicles to mountain passes to shoot the birds with repeater shotguns as they fly low overhead - are closely associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.

The French government fears that the hunters - who exploded bombs and issued death threats to conservationists and MEPs to get their point across, will give the National Front a vital boost in June's EU elections - and have put intense political pressure on Brussels to change the law.

The European President, Jacques Delors, who hopes to run for the French presidency next year, hurried the proposed changes through the commission in record time, overruling the environment commissioner, Yannis Paleokrassis, in the process. The Department of the Environment acknowledged yesterday that the hunting proposal posed a problem for Britain 'because birds we are paying to protect here will be shot on their way over France'.

(Photograph omitted)