As more and more regional authorities in Italy ride roughshod over national and European hunting law, at least one supposedly protected species has been granted a stay of execution.
The lives of more than 2,000 marmots, the large ground squirrels found in northern Italy and other mountainous areas all over the world, have been saved following a strident appeal by WWF-Italy, along with two Italian animal rights associations.
Despite being protected by Italian law, for the past three years provincial authorities in Bolzano have declared open season from September 1 (three weeks before the start of the hunting season) on nearly 2,000 of the furry creatures - known as groundhogs in North America - claiming they are harmful to pastures where cows graze.
Each year WWF-Italy has appealed successfully against the local law but the ruling has never been made in time to save the marmots. This year it staged a sit-in in front of the Bolzano administrative headquarters on 28 August and the law was repealed immediately.
'We are very happy that the regional court approved our request for immediate suspension of the decree,' said Massimiliano Rocco of WWF-Italy. 'Otherwise, starting from 1 September, hunters could have shot marmots causing great environmental damage and going against the national law.'
Marmots play an important role in the Alpine environment and an equally important one in the food chain, particularly regarding wolves and golden eagles.
'This is the first time we have managed to stop the decree before the killing,' said Rocco, 'but the wrongful and irresponsible behaviour of the Province, that every year repeats the same unlawful action, is unacceptable.'
The start of the 2008 hunting season in Italy has witnessed 15 out of 20 regions allowing the hunting of several migratory and non-migratory species including blackbirds, partridges, hares and rabbits well ahead of the 21 September opening date.
Seven regions even allowed the hunting of protected species such as sparrows, chaffinches and cormorants, despite the fact that the European Court of Justice cautioned Italy for such hunting in 2006.
This year, more than ever before, Italy's regional authorities have challenged the law and threatened wild species during the late summer period when they are most vulnerable.