It looks like the government is set on opening a finch-trapping season in a few days. This time around, the cunning plan is research. Trappers will have to release all the birds they catch as part of a scientific study on finches. I’m about to say that this is about as wise as trying to make chocolate out of soil.

But first, my take on trapping. I don’t like the idea of keeping a bird, or anything or anyone else for that matter, in a cage. Living creatures have a certain dignity about them which is inevitably robbed by  caging them.

I had said this rhetorically all my life. It was only last year that nothing happened that made it really sink in. Watching a sparrow go about its daily business on my terrace, it suddenly hit me just how perfect and magnificent a wild animal is in its own skin and habitat. At that moment, I understood why Werner Herzog calls J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine “mandatory reading … a transubstantiation”. 

That said, I do understand that my views are not universally shared. I am also highly impatient with all or nothing attitudes. Trappers are no crueller than I am. I’m aware of the horrors of dairy farming, for example, and yet I put milk in my coffee every morning. I like cats, too, in spite of the fact that they devastate nature. And so on: the point is that I won’t be the one to cast the first stone.

There was never any need to abolish finch trapping outright. The practice, and the rich lore and knowledge and emotions it comes with, mean a lot to many people. I respect that. From a conservation point of view, none of the finch species trapped in Malta are particularly at risk, and in any case the numbers involved are relatively small anyway.

An autumn trapping season of a few weeks would have been perfectly sustainable. It would be carried out on private land, in full respect of walkers and other people using the countryside, and certainly not on garrigue or some other ecologically sensitive habitat.

What we have instead is a charade that does a disservice to conservation, and to the future of trapping itself. For three reasons.

First, research doesn’t just happen because Clint Camilleri decides it will. Proper research requires solid research design, teams of qualified researchers and clear envisaged outcomes. In this case, there isn’t the slightest evidence of any of these.

For all their knowledge, trappers do not become researchers by virtue of catch-and-release. If I went fishing and decided to release my catch for whatever reason, I wouldn’t call myself an ichthyologist.

Besides, this ‘research project on finches’ lacks any semblance of design or clear objectives. The only objective I can think of has little to do with ornithology and everything to do with politicking. I’m waiting to see which research institution will steward it but I’m not holding my breath.

The government has come up with something which is impossible to enforce or control- Mark Anthony Falzon

Second, catch and release is a perversion of the whole point of trapping which, surprise surprise, is to catch and keep birds. A trapper who caught and released a hawfinch or a male linnet would be thought quite unwell by his peers.

I’m not trying to be funny. I knew someone who as a boy trapped birds with his father but who turned to bird ringing (catch-and-release that is) in his early 20s. He once told me that his father had had to steer clear of his mates for a while, simply because word in the village was that “it-tifel ta’ Toni qed jaħbtulu” (“Toni’s son has lost his marbles”).

The third reason is perhaps the most fundamental. Catch-and-release is almost impossible to effectively police. It would require an officer to sit side-by-side with each trapper in the field all day long. The countryside has its hiding places, especially to those who know it intimately and are not stupid. Most trappers do, and aren’t stupid.

I’m saying that the government has come up with something which is impossible to properly enforce and control. Truly a cookbook case of a recipe for disaster, in other words.

Certainly a disaster with respect to bird conservation. Sound conservation depends on transparency, the availability of good data and the goodwill of all involved. It cannot be based on deceit – which is what the government is proposing, and what trappers will be forced into.

The trapping season as proposed will then be unacceptable to conservationists, and rightly so. It is also a disservice to trappers, even if it seems otherwise. The long-term prospects of trapping depend on long-term sustainability that can be shown to be thus. As is, trappers will have to bite their nails every autumn as they wonder what the latest travesty might be, and whether or not it will work.

The government’s gift to trappers is a solution that’s no solution at all. It is all about failure, even as it is portrayed as some sort of victory. Thing is, if the shelf life of artful dodgers is what it is, that of artless ones is even shorter.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us