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From what I have read in the media, there seems to be a lot of information that has been misconstrued about the Maltese trappers traditional socio-cultural passion of live-finch capturing (locally referred to as ‘trapping’. A centuries-old practice that is carried out through the use of traditional manually operated selective clap-nets, where the caught finch is caught alive, and so kept – never killed).
It is a tradition that we have inherited and through my experience I hope to share some of the feelings of the passion (namra in Maltese) as the season closes.
It is the last day of the open season; my fellow finch trappers and I begin our routine of collecting our equipment from our imnasab (our trapping sites) dotted around the verdant valley of Kunċizzjoni. There is a routine to observe – as with many of the finch trapping activities that have been handed down through generations. The first step is to move the live-decoy birds from the trapping cages (gabjetti) to the more spacious aviaries. This allows us to later clean and refurbish said cages as necessary.
We then pick up our nets, clear them of twigs and stones, fold them carefully and tie them in bundles with twine. After a few hours, the sun sets on the final day of the finch trapping season for the year.
This year, our minds are focused on the looming judgement of the European Court of Justice verdict, which could mean that 31 December 2017 would have been the last day we will ever again gather on the hillside.
Malta is accused of opening a finch trapping season in breach of the EU “Birds” Directive, European rules which aim to protect bird populations.
This objective is something I support because we want to see our time-honoured customs passed down to future generations. Scores of finches visited Malta in 2017, enough to assure anyone that European finch populations are healthy, and the European Directive allows the hunting and trapping of birds that are abundant. So where is the problem?
Now, as I picked up the poles that work the nets (crafted from traditional beechwood and weathered smooth by seasons of exposure to soil, sun, and rain) and have one last look around to make sure the place is cleared of all my trapping equipment, I am tormented by unanswered questions. Why, given all the controls, the persistent police checks, and the small bag limits, is the Commission still not satisfied? The practice goes back at least six hundred years in Malta. How can it be suggested that it endangers a finch population of millions, most of which don’t even come near our islands during their migration? Trapping is enriched by all manner of lore and nuances of language. Why is it not considered worth saving? I cannot help comparing to Austria, where not only is a similar practice, where the same species of finches are caught accepted by the Commission, it is actually inscribed as an exemplar of UNESCO world intangible cultural heritage.
The end of the trapping season should be a time to savour and reflect on our shared heritage, but it is with heavy hearts that the other trappers and I gathered our equipment and walk back to our cars. Any day now, the European Court of Justice will deliver its verdict in the case brought by the Commission.
We fear that we may never unpack our nets and poles and return to our imnasab again. Come October, the first north-easterly winds of the year, that have stirred my blood since I started trapping with my father as a boy, could be bringing only a sad reminder of the loss of yet another historic European tradition, and deny thousands of Maltese trappers the right to pass their socio-cultural traditions on to their children.