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Last weekend, the president of France's League for Protection of Birds, Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, set free 80 birds round here, the heart of ortolan-hunting territory.In a heightened campaign against the poachers, the league has turned to using helicopters and light aircraft to find the bird traps.But he had steeled himself for a huge dinner, bigger even than that of his fellow healthy diners.They stuck to a single ortolan - one is considered an indulgent enough pleasure - but the dying former president reached for another.'The hunting has gone on since the ban,' says Bougrain- Dubourg, France's most prominent bird enthusiast and former lover of animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot.
Those arrested are liable for a £4,000 fine but, more often than not, they're given only a verbal warning.Restaurant owners are liable to the same fine as the poachers for serving them, and can in theory be jailed if they re-offend; so they serve the birds only to those they trust implicitly.When I request an ortolan in a number of Landes' restaurants, I am firmly told they are no longer on the menu.Once he'd swallowed his second songbird, according to witnesses, he sat back in his chair, his face wreathed in ecstasy.As he munched his way through the little birds - stuffed into his mouth in one go, beak, bones and all; everything, in fact, except for the feet - he followed the traditional custom of placing his head under a napkin.
'Some people begin with the head, others with the rear end, and there are competing opinions on how best to enjoy them.' President Mitterrand was very weak on that New Year's Eve.