Opinion – “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