More than 400 protected finches were smuggled into the country from Sicily by an Italian man on board the Virtù Ferries catamaran early yesterday morning, Times of Malta has learnt.

He attempted to smuggle the birds in vegetable crates stacked on top of each other in his car but was arrested on arrival.

There was a delay in the investigation as the protected birds were still being kept in the crates at the offices of the Administrative Law Enforcement Unit until yesterday afternoon, as authorities attempted to identify a place to send them to.

Such smuggled birds are usually sent to quarantine but this procedure was meant to be stopped following the death of another 500 finches smuggled into the country last October.

The birds had been kept in quarantine as court evidence but the place was described as “inadequate” by Animal Welfare Commissioner Emanuel Buhagiar.

Speaking to Times of Malta following the case, Mr Buhagiar said quarantine was not meant for smuggled birds caught by the police. The quarantine section did not have room to hold such a large number of birds so they were being kept in crammed cages that led to their death.

Yet, there is no alternative to quarantine, which is where the finches were eventually sent later in the day. The plan was for them to be released following the identification of the species that is part of the investigation into the crime.

Should this occur, their survival is still not guaranteed, according to experts. Whether they survive or not will depend on how long the birds have been in captivity and that includes the time spent in cages in Italy, which is as yet unknown.

If the birds have not been kept in cages for a long time, their release is the best solution because the stress caused to wild finches kept in cages is a major factor leading to their death.

This is what caused the death of the finches last year.

The demand arises because live decoys are needed on trapping sites to lure in the wild birds with their song

Yet, if the finches have been kept in cages for a considerable period of time and managed to live, they may have still lost their flight muscles and would be unable to survive.

A surge in illegal smuggling of finches occurred last year following the government’s decision to reintroduce trapping, which is banned in the EU.

In October alone, at least 1,300 songbirds were smuggled from Italy to Malta in three weeks.

The demand arises because live decoys are needed on trapping sites to lure in the wild birds with their song. The European Commission called on the Maltese government to reconsider its decision to resume finch trapping, arguing there was no justification for its reintroduction.

Despite a formal warning of a breach of EU laws, the Prime Minister said the government was prepared to defend the rights of trappers “throughout the infringement procedure” that could land the country before European courts.

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