Silence of the quails: A terrible night slaughtering dozens of birds triggers a lot of outrage; their lawless owner looks ahead

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It’s sad – especially for the birds. It was a great idea. The government’s rules prohibiting the birds are kind of stupid. It’s best to be safe. He broke the rules. And why is a guy touting natural farming locking them up in tiny cages?

Check off one, some or all of those and you’ll get an idea of the range of opinions about Polar Permaculture founder Benjamin Vidmar being forced to kill 80 quail last week he was collecting eggs from.

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Quail eggs purchased are warmed in an incubator at Polar Permaculture in the hope some will hatch. Photo courtesy of Polar Permaculture.

“I’m still in shock,” he said this week while tending to seedlings in the basement facility where he raised the birds. “We really had it down to a science.”

But beginning last Wednesday, Vidmar began killing the birds – in the most humane way possible by cutting their heads off, he said – and by the end of the next night the meat from the hens was stored in a freezer in a nearby building.

“I’m not going to try to sell them,” he said. “I don’t want to get into any more trouble.”

The now-empty cages and other egg-gathering equipment still fill much of a second room. Vidmar said he plans to put the equipment in storage while he continues to seek approval from the government to resume the project – and possible raise other animals such as rabbits.

“We’ve already proven we can do it,” he said.

The Norwegian Food Safety Authority ordered Vidmar to kill the birds by last Friday due to a ban on importing livestock because of disease fears. While certain birds such as parakeets can be brought from the mainland as pets, quail – or their eggs, which Vidmar purchased and hatched – are prohibited.

Vidmar estimates he probably spent 40,000 kroner overall on the equipment.

“We were just starting to break even,” he said.

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Benjamin Vidmar, founder of Polar Permaculture, relaxes in his greenhouse during a photo shoot for Visit Svalbard that’s been used in some of the extensive media coverage of his project. Photo courtesy of Visit Svalbard.

He acknowledges purchasing the eggs and hatching them without getting government approval, but he said the rules seemed unclear and his requests for information initially went unanswered.

“It may seem clear cut now, but when I was seeking information is was not so clear cut,” he said.

When he started his greenhouse project he imported about 13,000 worms and obtained permission to keep them simply by sending an e-mail, which he thought would be applicable with the quail.

Vidmar began raising the birds about a year ago, and their eggs have been available in local restaurants and at Svalbardbutikken for months. But he said there seemed be little local awareness of them until the order to destroy his birds became public a couple of days before the deadline.

“When we had to kill them that is when a lot of people came out and showed that they cared,” he said.

Social media posts about killing the birds attracted scores of comments – mostly supportive, but some scathing – although Vidmar noted it was too late for any suggestions to be followed since he had been fighting with the government for months to keep the birds.

“Looks like the authorities have nothing else to do,” wrote Franka Leiterer, a local guide. “I am so sorry the hear another throw back for an amazing and brave project. It is in some way sad that Svalbard won’t support environmental projects like this one.”

Michael Guiden Petit, another local sympathizer, noted huge numbers of birds from elsewhere migrate to Svalbard every year, not to mention the new species from warmer areas being observed regularly due to climate change.

“I’m suggesting that the migratory birds arriving are far more likely to carry any form of disease and viruses than birds hatched on the island,” he wrote. “Equally that any migratory bird will have most likely met a wild quail somewhere in mainland Europe.”

Vide Brant, a nature guide who was perhaps the most outspoke online critic on the effort – and the Polar Permaculture concept in general – stated the cages “look like animal torture.”

“You should be ashamed over the way those birds where caged up,” he wrote. “A clean death is better. I don’t consider the rules or paperwork when I say this. But judging from the many photos I’ve seen I’m chocked that this is called organic. You kept all these birds in micro prisons in a basement, never to roam free, never ever to see the sun…All for what? To make money.”

Vidmar, in a reply, disputed Brant’s characterizations.

“We let our birds out to free roam in our lab whenever we cleaned the cages, and also to dust bath daily,” he wrote, adding the birds and their manure were inspected repeatedly by a veterinarian and found to be free of disease.

“After all of these years we are the only people working to keep our sewage out of the sea and provide local food at the same time,” Vidmar wrote. “We do not have a huge budget, and we don’t even get paid for this. All of us are volunteers, and are working to making Long-yearbyen more sustainable as best as we can.”

Vidmar said his commitment to the concept of the overall project remains undaunted.

“”It’s not going to end like this,” he said. “This was just one part of it.”

Polar Permaculture, particularly its outdoor greenhouse that debuted two years ago, has received extensive and nearly all laudatory coverage in media articles, broadcasts and documentaries. Vidmar said while it’s appreciated and he gets messages from all of the world daily, it isn’t translating into financial support.

“We have people coming and filming every week, but I don’t see how it’s helping,” he said.

The primary work at his “Arctic farm” remains the herbs and other greens that made his project notorious, and which are widely used by local eateries as well as available for sale. Vidmar said he and other volunteers will be focusing on increasing that production – and finding the funds necessary to do so.

Some of money may come from the multiple tours – environmental and culinary – that Vidmar said now account for the majority of Polar Permaculture’s income. Beyond that, he is still focusing on his original five-year timeline for establishing a sustainable program before he considers establishing similar projects elsewhere.

“I think two more years and then it’ll be where it needs to be,” he said.

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