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A “recreation” not worthy of a European state – Nicholas Barbara

A ‘recreation’ not worthy of a European state - Nicholas BarbaraOpinion – “Picture yourself on your annual winter getaway to an exotic escape in the southern hemisphere. While exploring your tranquil surroundings you venture into a restaurant, lured by the tempting aromas.

You sit down to enjoy your meal when suddenly you are surrounded, handcuffed and thrown into a cell, for no reason at all. You have no chance of escape and for the rest of your life you are behind bars. You may have all the food and nourishment you need but you don’t even have enough space to stretch out. Most would think this to be cruel, unfair and inhumane – but this is the trauma wild finches or song birds experience on our idyllic shores every autumn.

You may think this must surely be illegal, but sadly finch trapping has been legal again since 2014, under the authority of none other than the Parliamentary Secretariat in charge of Animal Welfare. That’s right, animal welfare – best defined locally as being the welfare of any living animal except wild birds.

The romantic semantic given to this practice in more recent years is the ‘socio-cultural tradition of live-finch capturing’ as the Wild Birds Regulation Unit (WBRU) within the Environment Ministry justifies it to the European Commission.

The reality behind this practice branded as ‘tradition’ is far from the vintage notion of a village pensioner who has no reason to live other than to incarcerate birds as a hobby.

Finches, like many other birds we are lucky enough to have visit our islands, migrate south from Europe to Africa every autumn, with the Maltese Islands acting as a stepping stone for them. We know they originate from up to 18 different countries, where they are protected and where the use of nets to catch them is banned.

This is the crux of the whole issue. EU rules (the Birds Directive) do not allow these birds to be taken from the wild or killed and consider the use of nets as an unsustainable method of killing birds. When Malta joined the EU way back in 2004, this matter had to be evened out, with Malta agreeing to slowly phase out the practice by 2009.

And so it did…only that it didn’t last that long. Political promises held behind closed doors with the trapping and hunting community in 2013 forced the Parliamentary Secretariat to create a unit of government employees plucked from civil service and hunting organisations to come up with the solution.

For them, a derogation was the answer; an attempt to justify bringing back this cruel activity by requesting an exemption from the European Commission – one that is normally requested for extreme circumstances such as killing birds that can be a cause of peril, pests or for justifiable scientific research.

It is this key point that makes the term ‘justifiable’ stick out. The European Commission has always been of the opinion that catching finches just for fun is not a justifiable reason. Neither ‘tradition’ holds any water.

If trappers have such an absolute need to possess these birds for traditional purposes, there is no reason to catch them from the wild. There are enough species and breeds in captivity to satisfy anyone’s passion.

This position was known long enough that the whole saga was reignited in 2014, with BirdLife Malta being at the forefront of lobbying the government not to reopen this cruel and damaging practice. For the birds and the risk of their welfare are only just part of what finch trapping really does.

Every autumn, the WBRU authorises over 8,000 trapping sites, irrespective of land ownership. It is estimated an area just larger than the size of the whole of Valletta is stripped of vegetation and covered with nets to catch birds. A good proportion of such land is public land, blocked off with RTO (Reserved To Owner) signs.

Whole bunkers and complexes have been re-adorned since the trapping season for finches has reopened in 2014, while whole swathes of protected habitat in Natura 2000 sites have been cleared off or sprayed with herbicide to make way for nets.

To catch wild finches, other live finches have to be used for their call as a lure. As a result, each season creates such a huge demand for caged birds to be used as decoys, that every year thousands of wild finches caught in nearby Italy are smuggled into Malta to supply trappers.

These unlucky finches are tucked and crammed into tiny spaces to escape customs, with many dying in transit. This just fuels the vicious cycle; trapping more wild birds for the enjoyment of those who catch them.

Sadly, many don’t make it past the first few days in captivity. The stress of the catch and the conditions they are kept in means they will never make it out alive from a life behind bars.

Since 2014, the European Commission has initiated infringement procedures against Malta for reopening finch trapping seasons for which the Commission contests that the so-called tradition of catching finches does not conform to EU law.

The case ended up at the European Court of Justice and it was heard last February, with a verdict expected in the coming weeks. Incidentally, this could be the turn of European Commissioner for Environment Karmenu Vella to bring Malta back in line with the rest of Europe, if the European Court rules it out in his favour.

An end to finch trapping would follow the progress Malta achieved so far on animal welfare – from the banning of animal circuses and improved pet protection laws.

It would however also return a good chunk of Maltese countryside back to the public to be recovered from years of misuse, especially where priority habitats are concerned.”

Nicholas Barbara is the Conservation Manager at BirdLife Malta

Photo: This Meadow Pipit was caught in an unattended net in Ta’ Cenc (Natura 2000 site). Luckily this bird was found in time and released unscathed. Photo by Nadja Tschovikov


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3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "A “recreation” not worthy of a European state – Nicholas Barbara"

#1 Comment By anthony zammit On January 23, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

I grew up with a Canary in our house. First, we had Tippy, then Pippi and Tweety and so on. My family never found out that the 4th Canary did not open his cage door by itself but had a little bit of help from 8 years old me! Trapping is a sport and it is rewarding to catch such a difficult nearly impossible flyer to catch. They might feel as brave as the Whale Catchers! Apart from my sarcasm: I do not mind having an Aviary. We keep dogs and cats inside and if we do not provide a good shelter for them we could be in trouble with the law, so should birds have a big dwelling where they could stretch their wings. The Planning Authority has hundreds of laws in measurements, so should Wild Life draw up a minimum size of an Aviary. What should be banned are Cages. They are too small and yes, they will be a confinement for any bird. But an Aviary well-kept and well-cared for would not be such a bad idea as long as it is not overcrowded! Each bird should have an allowance of cubic space to roam in.
Apart from that, while struggling to make Finch Trapping illegal once more, Bird lovers can trap the birds themselves. Find a strategic point on the island where you know that most of the birds arrive at and trap them yourselves before the others get them. Then feed them and let them take a rest and then let them go on the other side of the island.
Another idea of mine is that BirdLife should make some fundraising or an EU project to build Bird Houses and sell them (inexpensively) to people who would put them in their balconies or in their Verandah or small garden. Birds would stop, have a drink, eat some seeds and if lucky the owner and the children might witness all of this. Wouldn’t this be nice? I did it in Australia. I did a small pond surrounded by bird houses and had ducks fly every day to wash and flap their way off to their habitat. I used to love having breakfast watching this daily (yet seasonal) occurrence. I have 5 balconies and if I find inexpensive birdhouses I will gladly buy 5 and fill the water container and the seed each day and hopefully, I find that they serve to help these legal migrants.

#2 Comment By george palmer On January 24, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

This is a very well written article. Most people don’t realise the cruelty involved in trapping birds and the money that is made from it by inflicting further cruelty. Unfortunately the people who engage in these savage practices are mentally deficient and are incapable of having feelings towards Gods creations. It is also unfortunate that EU ‘action’ is so long and drawn out. I understand the minister for animal welfare is a keen hunter, which says a lot for the unhealthy relationship between the neanderthals and the government. So long as these disgraceful practices continue Malta will remain a third world country in everything but name.

#3 Comment By Yvonne Cox On January 26, 2018 @ 11:12 am

In 2016, before I finally settled in Gozo, my husband and I were walking along Sanap Cliffs, I kept seeing the green nets and in my naievety did not realise what they were for. A little further along I saw a little bird trapped in one, being an avid animal lover I went to free it BUT, my husband quickly grabbed me, he then explained these nets to me and pointed out the hunter in his hideout, gun at the ready. I walked away very upset.