Decathlon’s war on wildlife?

A new petition has been launched asking French-based sports goods retailer Decathlon to stop promoting the slaughter of songbirds and migratory birds. In its first few days 44000+ people have signed it, including us, but it has raised some interesting questions that we think are worth discussing.

Firstly, what triggered the petition? A couple of weeks ago images were posted on Twitter pointing out that Decathlon UK (and that’s an important distinction we’ll come to) advertised a fairly extensive range of hunting paraphernalia aimed mainly at ‘hunters’ wanting to kill passerines and small migrant birds. They caused an immediate and furious reaction. The products – we’re not going to promote them with an extensive list, but they include such items as the leather bird hunting straps and camouflage hunting belts marketed in the image below – were immediately condemned.

 

 

Condemned here in the UK anyway. Perhaps because the hunting of birds here is illegal and disgusting right? Well, partly. Small birds like thrushes are fully protected in law and no-one would openly support shooting them, but then the shooting industry does legally release 50 million + non-native birds every year (mostly pheasants and Red-legged Partridges) just to be killed, and hundreds of thousands of Red Grouse are shot between August and December. Wood Pigeons are shot in huge numbers to ‘protect crops’ under the terms of the ‘barely there’ but government-issued ‘General Licence’. Corvids are shot to protect pheasant and Red Grouse chicks. And wildfowlers blast ducks and geese out of the sky all through the winter. Is there really such a difference? And where’s the backlash against the suppliers of products – from guns to wellington boots to shooting holidays – that are heavily advertised at those ‘hunters’?

Talking of which, Ethical Consumer wrote a detailed report in 2016 (‘Shooting Wildlife’) looking at how well-known optics suppliers make a great deal of money developing and selling rifle sights to ‘hunters’ while pushing their ‘nature’ products to birders. EC’s 2018 follow-up stated that83% of major brands selling binoculars and other optics products specifically market to hunters“. Some even sponsored hunting organisations and events. How many of us changed our binocular brand in response? Clothing manufacturer Under Armour has become almost ubiquitous on the high street and sponsor a huge number of sports teams here in the UK, yet also market aggressively to hunters. How many of those 44000+ signatories are wearing one of their trendy base layers right now?

 

Even so, what Decathlon (and it’s the company not just Decathlon UK that is targeted in the petition) is doing is flat out wrong, right? Well, not exactly. The Decathlon Group is a vast organisation, the largest sporting goods retailer in the world. Turnover in 2019 increased on 2018’s figures by 9% to a massive 12.4 billion euros. They have a presence (pre-covid 19 anyway) in 69 countries with 93,000 employees (its largest store is in India and they recently opened in North America) and operate under a huge number of different commercial rules and legislations. Yes, it’s illegal to hunt thrushes in the UK, but what presumably happened in the case spotlighted here is that someone cut and pasted material from the parent company onto the UK website, perhaps not understanding the law in the UK or guessing it wouldn’t make much difference to the bottom line anyway as turnover here is, in relative terms, a modest £214.4million.

In reality, we’re not all that important to the Decathlon Group. A large percentage of sales are made in mainland Europe, and all across Europe, governments – under pressure from hunting lobbyists – have been awarding themselves what are known as ‘derogations’ (or exemptions) which allow them to break the legally-binding EU Birds Directive, the legislation which supposedly protects Europe’s birds. For example, France permits ‘hunters’ to trap migrant birds on lime-sticks or glue traps under a derogation, which we wrote about last week. Malta is another prime example of a European government bowing to hunting lobby groups and allowing the spring shooting of Quail – a declining species – whilst knowing full well that ‘traditionalists’ will also shoot Turtle Doves, a species that has almost vanished in parts of its former range and in desperate need of proper legal protection.

Grassroots organisations like CABS and major charities like BirdLife International and their partners (eg France’s LPO, Italy’s LIPU, BirdLife Malta, Birdlife Cyprus), have been asking for support to tackle these derogations for years. Without getting into a Brexit debate, now that we’ve walked away from the EU we’ve also walked away from the influence we might have had to protect Europe’s birds at ministerial level. While it is morally repugnant, unsustainable, and has no place in modern society, the reality is that some European governments (France, Italy, Spain etc etc) allow the killing of a supposedly limited number of birds – including thrushes – and, whether we approve or not (and we 100% do not), equipment suppliers like the Decathlon Group have responded to ‘customer demand’.

 

So what happens next? We’d guess that Decathlon UK is likely to say that they will try and make sure these adverts don’t show up on their website again but the Group will see no reason to remove them from websites across the rest of Europe. And in reality, there is nothing forcing them to do so. As far as they will be concerned they are selling a legal product to an audience who will use them legally. We’re speculating here, of course, but the ‘we’re doing nothing illegal’ has been pretty much the line other organisations have taken after being called out in this way.

So where does this leave the petition? As we said, we’ve signed it and we support it (and we’ve linked to it here and via the image below). It can be seen as a test of what the UK public thinks about the sale of equipment to kill small birds like thrushes and it undoubtedly contributes to the larger debate about hunting and poaching. Kudos to Colin MacLennan for setting it up. Will it change how Decathlon operates though? They may surprise us all of course, but until there is a wholesale change in public attitude towards hunting and the ‘war on wildlife’, and the passing of legislation that makes ‘hunting equipment’ like this illegal (or redundant) across Europe it’s hard to see why Decathlon would do anything more than acknowledge a faux-pas and carry on as before.

That might be seen as too cynical by some, but it’s an opinion. If you think differently, or if you are from Decathlon and dispute everything we’ve written, let us know. The more debate on such a contentious issue the better…