It’s about time I sat down and wrote an essay on the whys and hows of Mission 500. How did the idea evolve, what inspired us?
Oom – the Fiat 500
I have always adored the Fiat 500, the classic. Each time I see one (which is quite frequent when you are in Italy) I get that gooey, squishy sensation in my heart. It was a dream and I made that dream come true.
In 2008 I commissioned a Fiat 500 enthusiast/specialist/mechanic to find and restore a classic Fiat 500 for my own. I named her Oom. Thank you Gabriele.
And then? And then, after a wonderful summer together, Oom and I were separated. She in Italy, me in the UK. I changed my career ambitions, following my dream (again). I went to university, worked on short-term contracts, constantly moving from one part of the UK to the next. Life revolved around getting the next job. Over eight years later, I got myself a permanent contract, and my mind turned to … Oom.
I chatted endlessly to my friend Annette about whether to sell her, whether to bring her to the UK, whether to keep her stored in Italy; how and when we could drive Oom to the UK. An idea began to formulate. With such an eye-catching little cutie, why not turn a journey across Italy and France in to some charitable, awareness-raising, fund-raising mission? We could use Oom as our mascot to appeal to the non-converted. And so it began.
The first charity I thought of was CABS, as I volunteer with them each year already. They loved the idea. Mission 500. A Fiat 500 and a mission to save the lives of 500 migrating birds (at least!). Between us we would create the itinerary/destinations that Mission 500 would visit. A quick calculation of where we would be driving, working, etc and I came up with a three week duration. Saving lives cannot be rushed.
Starting in Italy and ending in England seems so apt as I am half Italian half English. Atrocities on wildlife (within and outside of the law) occur in both countries. And of course, if we are driving through France it would be crazy to not highlight things going on there too. Believe me, by the end of this blog you will be shocked, angry, overwhelmed.
If we were going to make this big and attention-grabbing we needed a few more than two in the team. So my next step was to choose the select few. The prerequisites were: able to take three weeks from work; single; no children; tireless enthusiasm; an enormous sense of humour, adventure and fun; flexibility; capable of sitting hidden in vegetation for hours, or scrabble about in the undergrowth – with no complaints; ability to follow rules even if that means walking away from a bird in a trap; passion; selflessness; fabulous public engagement skills; Italian speakers; French speakers; mechanical skills; happy camping for three weeks; Comms skills (ability to write, tell, share or film good stories); no divas.
A big ask, LOL. But these needed to be covered by the team as a whole, not by each individual. It wasn’t actually too hard to find such people amongst my friends. The first I asked said yes, so I never got to invite most on the list (next time?). The general response was “That sounds bonkers, I’m in!”
So why an all female team? Well, For seven years I ran my own business. A very glamorous business. A model and hostess agency. I was constantly surrounded by wonderful teams of ladies. The atmosphere was always superb. The camaraderie so special. So why break the habit? Girl Power works. As Chief Luthuli said (during the fight to end apartheid in South Africa) “when the women begin to take an active part in the struggle, no power on earth can stop us from achieving freedom in our lifetime.”
So here we are Annette, Fiona, Ruth, Oom, and myself.
The journey begins – Italy
We leave Cheshire (in our back-up vehicle) on the 23rd September, and head to Calais via Bristol (to pick up Ruth who has all of our camping gear). It will be a dash across France and down to Tuscany, to Oom, hopefully arriving at some point on the 24th. 25th and 26th will be prep days, organising the Fiat, organising local publicity for our take-off on the 27th. At every opportunity (there and back) we will pull over, cover the fiat in bunting (kindly made by one of our followers/supporters), leaflet and chat to people about our campaign.
28th/29th September is when the real work starts. We are giving our services to the Oasi Smeraldino Nature Reserve in Rozzano. A reserve run solely by volunteers. In exchange, Catia Acquaviva – president of Associazione A.P.E (Animali Piante Ecologia), will train the team up in anti-poaching patrol skills.
After a few days there, we then head to the real deal. The CABS Brescia Bird Protection camp. I volunteered here for one week last year. A team of ladies is probably not ideal for covert work, so we will be there as an addition to the team of volunteers. We will go where ever we are required, whether hiding in the mountain woods looking for illegal traps in order to pass the information to the police; or further afield where hunters stand for hours shooting every song bird that flies over on migration. We are talking of thousands, shot dead, each morning. Yes you read that right. Thousands. Us standing there watching, overtly, could literally save thousands of finches lives in one morning – as the hunters lower their guns (in shame?). And those that don’t, those that continue to shamelessly kill these tiny migrating birds? We will film them and share the footage with the world.
We will be filming, photographing and recording everything possible – and sharing it all with our followers. Our emotions, reactions, thoughts, feeling, wins, and grims. Facebook Live, Twitter, Instagram, and this blog. We want it to be as real and gritty as it is. Reality tv I suppose.
Italian hunters legally shoot 17,054,468 birds per year. Thats over 17 million! Huntable species are Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Fieldfares, Redwings and Skylarks. They are the third worst after France and the UK. Worst, being the nations that kill/bag the most. But what about the numbers killed illegally? Species killed illegally?
“The camouflaged shooting hides stand on extensive forest clearings. In autumn the Mountain Ash planted around the hides groan with the weight of bright red berries, and bird baths with fresh water are placed out invitingly next to heaps of food for the hungry migrants. But the birds are attracted most of all by the decoy birds perched in tiny cages. The birds are kept in dark cellars throughout the summer and only see the light of day when they are brought out to the hides for the autumn hunting season. Despite the miserable conditions in which they are kept for the rest of the year, the birds immediately begin to sing. For them the sudden brightness signals spring.”
As well as shooting there are three main trapping methods:
Bow traps / Archetti – illegal
“At first glance, the mechanism of this simple trap is remarkable and extremely brutal. A small stick and a piece of cord keep the bow – made traditionally out of a hazel branch – under tension. Birds are attracted by rowan berries and thereby lured to perch on the horizontally positioned stick. At the slightest touch the bow flies apart. Within a fraction of a second the bird is hanging upside down with its legs crushed in the trap. In the warm autumn sun they stay fresh –and alive – until the trapper releases them after a death struggle lasting for hours. Some also die from a blood clot in the brain, general circulation collapse or simply bleed to death.”
Snap traps / Trappola – illegal
“Snap traps operate on the mousetrap principle – when a bird, lured by a mealworm or rowan berry, brushes against the sensitive release mechanism, the clamp snaps shut and crushes the bird. Death is usually instant.”
Nets – illegal
“The trappers’ main objective is to catch decoy birds for hunting from hides. They therefore target mainly the four huntable thrush species, as well as Chaffinch and Brambling when special permits to shoot these species are issued. Some trappers however specialise in trapping Robins and Dunnocks (using these species as decoys) destined for the cooking pot.”
Read CABS’ 2016 round-up. “From October 4 to 27, a total of 78 nature and animal friends from all over Europe were involved in CABS large Bird Protection Camp in Brescia (Northern Italy). 87 illegal sites with a total of 288 bow traps, 661 traps and 48 nets were found and removed with police. In the monitoring of the traps reported by us by the forest police, 55 poachers are caught and arrested.”
And that is just Northern Italy!
Next stop – Northern France
Driving on up through Switzerland, Germany and France, to the Ardennes area of Northern France should be memorable – this will be an extremely long journey for such a wee old car.
France is quite exceptional. After facing hunting activities that are illegal in Italy (and therefore called poaching), we will be looking for crimes against wildlife that are actually legal in France. “Bird trapping, spring hunting of returning migrants, even hunting during the breeding season – these rights are taken for granted even today in many French Départements.”
The annual bag number here is 25,676,403. Over 25.5 million birds are killed legally in France each year. Can you get your head around that? If I ever again hear a representative of the Songbird Survival Trust attempt to tell me that songbird declines are due to badgers or magpies, I may just be tempted to knee them in the b*lls. Due to the ‘legality’ of the below barbaric activities, in France we shall be collecting evidence and locations – to pass back to CABS for their use in pressuring French and EU policy makers.
Horesehair snares – illegal in all EU states except France
“An extremely fine snare made from a hair from a horse’s tail is set out next to fresh rowan berries. To get at the berries the bird has to stick its head through the snare. It then takes fright at the touch and tries to fly away. The snare closes and throttles the bird.”
Are you sure? From Ardennes we then head to the Aisne area, the Champagne producing area of France. So what do they do here?
Lapwing & plover trapping – two-part clap net – illegal in all EU states except France
Luckily this method is on the decline. But we are going to check the area out, just in case… “In autumn a two-part clap net of some 100 m² in area is set out under tension on this island. Using live decoy Lapwings tied by their underparts to the ground and decoy call pipes, the wild birds are lured to the trapping site where the trapper lies in wait in his hut. When enough birds have settled the trapper manually activates the net that claps together enclosing the birds. The same method is used to trap Golden and Grey Plovers.” These birds are of conservation concern all over Europe. It is insane and unsustainable, for the French government to still allow the killing of these birds.
We will also be visiting a site somewhere in England on our way home. tbc.
Why are we each taking part in this mission? Because we can. Because we care. Because Europe’s hunters kill 102 million birds every year legally. Illegaly is more than likely the smae number again, probably more. Because bird species that are declining in population numbers are being killed needlessly. Because barbaric/inhumane and unnecessary methods are being used. Because persecuting wildlife in the name of ‘tradition’ is pathetic and so yesterday.
(all photographs are taken from the CABS website, except shot thrush, fiat 500 images).