Illegal use of poison is widespread all over Europe, although its impact on wild species is worst in Spain and in some Eastern European countries.
Spain was the first European country to develop awareness of the heavy impact of poison use on the conservation of many species, because poisoning is an entrenched practice in its territory, and because populations of carrion birds are so large, that finding carcasses of poisoned animals is not as unlikely as in other countries.
In Spain, persecution of predators was legal and state-planned between 1953 and 1968 (in some areas until the 1980s), and the use of poison baits was definitively prohibited only in 1989. Since 1995, the use of poison against animals is a criminal offence.
Once, poison was mainly used by breeders; today, it is still largely used particularly in the cotos privados de caza (large hunting ranches), to exterminate predators and protect game such as partridges and rabbits.
Poison is currently considered the main threat to the preservation of seven species of birds of prey, included in Annex I of the Birds Directive (listing vulnerable, rare and endangered species in the EU): Spanish imperial eagle, bearded vulture, Egyptian vulture, cinereous vulture, golden eagle, Bonelli’s eagle, red kite and black kite.
It is a serious threat for bears and wolves, too. In Spain, the range of these two species is already very limited, and their population is small due to hard persecution by man in the past.
Between 2005 and 2010, 4,395 poisoned animals were recorded in Spain. As the percentage of discovered and reported cases is estimated between 7 and 10% of all episodes, we can presume that around 45,000 animals died in only 5 years. The carbamate pesticides Aldicarb and Carbofurano were used in most cases.
The most affected wild species are griffon vulture (953 cases), fox (397), red kite (297), black kite (212), wildcat (207), cinereous vulture (133) and Egyptian vulture (69). Death of animals belonging to highly endangered species is unfortunately also frequent: Spanish imperial eagle (30), wolf (16) and bearded vulture (13). The red kite is the species that presents the highest vulnerability to poison, so much that its population has dramatically decreased in the last few years.
Detailed information on the Spanish situation can be found in an interesting publication, which was produced in the framework of the LIFE VENENO Project (www.venenono.org/) by Seo-BirdLIFE. The publication can be downloaded at http://tinyurl.com/mphrhh9
Andalusia is the region where most poisoning cases are discovered, not only because hunting is very widespread, but also because a tireless fight against the use of poison has been undertook there since 2004: this has promoted, first of all, a better knowledge of this phenomenon.
In 2004, the Junta de Andalucía was the first authority in Europe to use anti-poison dog units; it also implemented a strategy against the use of poison, consisting of 61 prevention and suppression measures, which made it possible to significantly reduce poisoning cases, and to have several offenders convicted, too.
In Eastern European countries, the use of poison often directly targets the eastern imperial eagle, “guilty” of feeding on hares and pheasants, since its usual preys, ground squirrels and hamsters, dramatically decreased following changes in their habitats.
The clash with hunters determined a massive use of poison, which caused the death of 44 eastern imperial eagles between 2005 and 2012. White-tailed eagles are heavily affected by poison use, too.
In Hungary , the LIFE Helicon Project (http://imperialeagle.hu/) undertook actions to preserve the imperial eagle and to combat the use of poison.
In Balkan countries, poison was legally used against predators (mainly foxes and wolves) until the 1980s, and made the populations of carrion birds drastically decline. This practice is unfortunately still very widespread. Strychnine is most commonly used: it made cinereous vultures disappear from Bulgaria and north-western Balkans, and put wolves in Bulgaria at risk.
In the last decades, numerous poisoning cases have involved mainly Egyptian and griffon vultures. Some episodes were particularly serious: in 1993, 62 Egyptian vultures were poisoned in the garbage dump of a Macedonian village, and 7 more died in 2003 in the eastern Rhodope mountains. The LIFE Neophron Project (www.lifeneophron.eu) is aimed at preserving the Egyptian vulture in Bulgaria and Greece, and made it possible to stress the issue of poisoning and to establish two anti-poison dog units in Greece.
In Greece, the use of poison was definitively prohibited in 1993. It is still a widespread practice, and the insecticide Metomil is the most frequently used substance. Poison seriously hit the populations of cinereous vulture and golden eagle, as well as of griffon and Egyptian vulture. It caused the death of several bears and wolves, too. The LIFE Arcpin Project (http://www.lifearcpin.gr/) includes measures to counter the use of poison.
In Great Britain, poison baits are mainly scattered to kill game predators, especially foxes, and have a significant impact particularly on red kites. Starting in 1989, this species was successfully reintroduced in Great Britain, and now there are over 3,000 couples but, because of several ecological factors, they are extremely vulnerable to poison: first of all, they feed on small preys, and they are therefore able to spot and ingest tiny poison baits.
The issue of poisoning looks particularly serious in Scotland where, unlike in other UK areas, the population of red kites cannot increase, precisely because of the high mortality caused by poison. Between 1989 and 2014, 60 red kites were found poisoned.
The newly reintroduced Irish population looks affected by the same problem.