Outrage as duck shoot in France is brought forward

The measure, which comes into force today, will put ducks and other marine game in the hunters' sights from 6 August in the English Channel, in western wetlands and on the Atlantic coast.

The move is seen as the second sop to the hunting lobby after claims from the French bird protection league, the Ligue Pour La Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), that France was alone in Europe, in extending the deadline for the use of lead pellets.

Every year, 9,000 tons of disgarded lead shot kills thousands of waders who mistake them for the grit they need to ingest to aid their digestion, the LPO says.

The LPO claims that, ahead of the European Constitution referendum, then prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, met French hunters' leaders and gave them an extra year - until July 2006 - to switch to steel or tungsten shot.

The EU agreed at an environment ministers' meeting in The Hague in 1995 to abolish the use of lead shot in wetlands by 2000. The UK implemented the ban in 1999 and two European countries, the Netherlands and Denmark, have outlawed the use of lead beyond wetlands, in all munitions.

In France alone, according to the LPO, 250 million cartridges are fired every year, sprinkling lead across the landscape and leading to thousand of cases of lead poisoning in birds.

According to the animal rights group, Mr Raffarin in March not only promised hunters a reprieve in the lead shot ban but also assured them that France would secure an extended hunting period for them by renegotiating a 1979 EU directive on bird protection that bans shooting during the nesting season but leaves governments to establish the calendar.

The LPO said it would complain to the Conseil d'Etat - the body overseeing the implementation of French laws - if Nelly Olin, the environment minister, went with her plan to allow waders to be shot from Saturday week.

Mrs Olin claims the move is based on sound scientific evidence showing that the Atlantic and English Channel nesting season - and the period during which waders are considered vulnerable - ends earlier than it used to. She claims to have evidence that most ducklings will be fully-grown by the beginning of August.

But even hunters question the minister's assertion. Max Isoard, chairman of the Fédération de chasse des Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, whose members will not benefit from the early hunting season since the Mediterranean coast is not included in today's announcement, said: "Mrs Olin has opened a judicial guerrilla war simply because she wants to please the hunters of the Somme and the Gironde. The scientific evidence Mrs Olin quotes shows an insignificant difference between nesting habits in the English Channel, the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean." The hunting season for Atlantic and English Channel waders has in previous years kicked off in the last week of August. The LPO said that, having predicted Mrs Olin's move, it proposed earlier this year a compromise date of 15 August for the whole of France. The proposal, it said, received the support of hunters in the south of the country.

The environment minister's move to change the shooting dates for waders will not affect the opening of the hunting season in the south of France for turtledoves and quails - August 27.