3 March 2008
MADRID – Clad in rubber boots, tweed caps and wax jackets, tens of thousands of hunters marched through central Madrid on Saturday, bringing rural complaints over a new environmental protection law to the heart of the Spanish capital.
The estimated 50,000 protestors chanted pro-hunting slogans, branded environmental activists "radicals" and called for the resignation of Environment Minister Cristina Narbona. At the heart of the unprecedented showing, just a week before the 9 March general election, are hunters and farmers’ concerns over the new Law of Natural Heritage and Biodiversity.
"It’s an interventionist law that puts hunting under the tutelage of the government," complained Antonio de Castro, a falconer. "The important thing about this demonstration is showing that hunters are together, that hunting is natural, it does not harm the environment and actually helps to protect it."
Among other gripes, hunters complain about new restrictions on where they can hunt and a ban on the use of lead buckshot in protected wetlands. Ahead of Saturday’s march, the Royal Palace confirmed that King Juan Carlos, himself an avid partridge hunter, had expressed an interest in the details of the law while it was under review.
Ecologists have accused the monarch of trying to use his influence to help the hunting lobby. They also claim that the restrictions on the use of lead buckshot, which ends up accumulating in wetland ecosystems and indiscriminately poisons thousands of birds each year, do not go far enough.
Hunters, however, see that and other measures contained in the legislation as the latest symptom of overzealous government regulation of their sport. "Narbona wants to give us rubber partridges," was one frequently chanted slogan, along with accusations that the government has sold itself out to the "ecological Taliban."
"We want [the government] to make it clear where lead ammunition is banned and to ensure that changing cartridges does not cost us a single euro," exclaimed Andrés Gutiérrez, the head of the Spanish Hunting Federation which organised the protest.
One Madrid hunter complained to reporters that switching to steel buckshot would not only be more expensive but also more dangerous. "When it hits, lead deforms but steel doesn’t, causing it to ricochet," the hunter said.
The hunters were supported in their protest by the Asaja’s farmers union, which also opposes further regulation of how people use the countryside and fears that too many restrictions will cause farmers to lose business from hunters who pay them to hunt on their land.
[Copyright EL PAÍS / R. MÉNDEZ / A. GRAU 2008]