22/04/2016 07:15 BST | Updated 22/04/2017 06:12 BST

The Flyway of Death That Shames Europe

The Brexit debate isn't only about immigration, sovereignty and the economy. For some, it's about wildlife. The natural environment is often assumed to be safest in the hands of its own protective inhabitants. However, it's usually the locals who are keenest to plunder endangered species, chop down rain-forests and drain wetlands, since they stand to gain most. Hence, conservation is best directed from afar.

So Europe's nature-lovers looked forward eagerly to European union. For them, a high-handed commissariat issuing dictates from Brussels, bureaucratic, inflexible and heedless of human collateral damage, sounded just the ticket. Soon, their hopes were being fulfilled, at least on paper.

In 1992, the EU council promulgated its Habitats Directive, which was intended to protect over 1,000 threatened species and more than 200 kinds of wildlife habitat. It was followed in 2009 by the Birds Directive, designed to safeguard all European bird life, partly through the creation of special protection areas. Together, these directives support Natura 2000, the largest network of protected areas in the world.

It is this programme that has enabled great crested newts to block housing projects. Had Boris's estuary airport progressed beyond his imagination it might have been stymied by the Thames Estuary and Marshes special protection area, which protects wintering waders and wildfowl. For Euro-enthusiasts, all this demonstrates that the EU has become an indispensable guardian of the continent's wildlife.

Nonetheless, an odd recent event on Europe's doorstep casts a different light on this claim. In the far south of Israel, 200 of the world's most zealous birdwatchers assembled in 39 teams for a race to find out who could see most species in 24 hours. The Arctic Redpolls from Finland took the palm with 174 species, but was America's Way-Off Coursers who seized a more sought-after prize.

The point of the exercise was to attract sponsors' donations, and the Coursers topped this chart with £8,400. This, together with £41,000 raised by their rival teams, has been remitted to a pressing avian cause. But this wasn't the threatened antbirds of the Amazon or the endangered serpent eagles of Madagascar. The money has gone to the Hellenic Ornithological Society to combat a wildlife disaster much nearer home.

Many of Europe's most iconic birds, including the swallow, nightingale, cuckoo and turtle dove spend the winter in Africa. Each spring these birds have to migrate back across the Mediterranean to breed in our countryside. Many of the species involved are sharply declining all across Europe. In Britain, the cuckoo is now a scarce bird. The turtle dove has declined by 91 per cent over the last twenty years. Nonetheless, what awaits these creatures as they arrive exhausted on our continent's southern coasts is carnage on an extraordinary scale.

Not the just in Greece but throughout Mediterranean Europe apart from Gibraltar, migrating birds are shot, netted, trapped and lured to glued branches in their tens of millions. Birds of prey funnelled through the shorter sea routes are blasted from the sky by massed ranks of hunters lined up in hides. Over two million of those fast disappearing turtle doves are shot each year in Malta, Cyprus, France, Italy, Spain and Greece.

The shooting is almost entirely for entertainment. Today, rural sportsmen are joined by Mercedes-loads of prosperous city-dwellers armed with state-of-the-art repeater shotguns. Few attempt to discriminate between more populous quarry and scarcer species such as honey buzzards, black storks and bee-eaters. Many would not know how to.

Netting and luring, on the other hand, are industrial activities. Once songbirds were food for hungry peasants. Now, they are the basis of immensely popular if under-the-counter gourmet dishes. Vast fine-mesh nets are strung between trees, and large areas of scrub coated with bird-lime. Thrushes, finches and warblers are then chased or lured to their doom with electronic calls. On Cyprus alone, the trade is worth €15 million a year, with many of the birds being caught on British territory around our bases on the island.

Besides these activities, trapping for cage and aviary is still a sizeable business in Latin Europe. In Spain, tethered goldfinches are forced to try and fly away. Their distress attracts others of the kind who are then caught in camouflaged nets. The victims find their way to well-stocked markets and pet-shops.

Of course, most of these practices fly in the face of EU law, but this does little to stop them. Only national governments can enforce Brussels edicts and many prefer to ignore them. France passed a hunting law that directly defied the Birds Directive. It later relented, but secured derogations from the directive which allow 64 species still to be hunted. Meanwhile, the Médoc remains the European heartland of the illegal springtime slaughter of turtle doves. Malta has been granted special permission to hunt turtle doves legally even in spring by the European Court of Justice.

The avian holocaust now under way on Europe's southern coastline reflects an unwelcome truth about the EU's commitment to conservation. It is splendid in theory but woefully inadequate in practice. Failing to safeguard the spring bird migration is far from the least of its failings.

Over the past 30 years, rare species have undoubtedly benefited from EU support. Yet the overall population of wild birds in Europe has decreased by about 400 million. It is familiar birds like sparrows, starlings and skylarks that have suffered most, and the EU has directly caused much of their decline.

Farmland wildlife has been most badly affected. In the UK, the number of birds breeding on farms has halved since 1970. Practices stemming from the Common Agricultural Policy are largely to blame. Incentives provided to increase production led farmers to maximise output at the expense of wildlife habitat. Now, subsidies are provided instead according to acreage farmed. These are causing more land to be converted to agriculture, particularly in eastern Europe where until now wildlife had largely escaped the ravages of modern farming.

The Brexiteers complain that Brussels dictates our destiny. Wildlife enthusiasts might wish that its conservation arm would do just that. In fact, the EU's priorities lie elsewhere and its conservation capabilities are thoroughly limited at national level. Leaving the European Union will not save our wildlife, but neither, it seems, will remaining inside.