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Roccoli - the state as official bird trapper

Mass trapping installations can be identified by their trimmed beech hedgesMass trapping installations can be identified by their trimmed beech hedgesLive decoy birds are essential for hunting from camouflaged shooting hides. As the urgently required thrushes and larks are very hard to breed in captivity, wild birds are trapped on a wide scale. The Italian state operates itself as bird trapper to meet this demand and thereby undermines European nature protection legislation.

The trapping is carried out in mass trapping installations known as roccoli. These installations, about the size of a football pitch, are located on the most important mountain passes and flyways for bird migration. The core of a roccolo is a huge beech hedge which surrounds the complete site. The trees are trimmed back into artificial arches over many decades and in their interior have a covered way of about one metre wide and up to five metres high. Enormous nets, up to a total length of 500 running metres are stretched out across these wooded passageways.

The roccolo offers a great variety of bushes bearing berries, watering places, feeding sites and is full of live decoys. It is not unusual for more than 50 birds in tiny cages to join in a spring concert that magically attracts birds of the same species on migration. In the centre of the trapping garden is a two storey tower in which the trapper sits. When enough birds have settled in the bushes he throws pieces of wood shaped like boomerangs across the installation. The birds identify the objects as approaching birds of prey and plunge hastily into the deceptive protection of the bushes where they end up in the nets. Several hundred birds can be caught in a roccolo in a single day.

Resupply for the shooting hides - this Song Thrush will end up as a live decoy.Resupply for the shooting hides - this Song Thrush will end up as a live decoy.In the 1970s more than 2,000 of these mass trapping installations were still in use. Since the introduction of the new Italian Hunting Law in 1992 at the latest bird trapping in Italy is forbidden, as decided by the EU in 1979. Almost all roccoli were indeed closed - but only almost all. In order to retain the shooting hide hunting tradition the state had to ensure a continuous supply of the necessary live decoys.

The regions in Northern Italy - above all Lombardy and Veneto - still permit the operation every year of some 50 roccoli. In autumn the nets are set out in the installations and a trapper paid by the state monitors the trapping. As the sale of the birds is forbidden by law the hunters pay a ‘fee’ for the birds. As the fee is - surprisingly enough - the same as the cost of a thrush bred in captivity, it is a an indirect sale and the state makes a good profit. Some 50,000 wild birds end up in this way in the hunters’ cages as decoys - in contravention of EU legislation but authorised by the Italian authorities.

Observance of the law appears to be not so easy for some state appointed trappers. Checks of the installations frequently expose deficiencies in the system such as the use of unauthorised nets or illegally leaving the nets standing overnight. More then a few trappers also use the opportunity to fill their freezers. Above all the protected species such as robins and finches, which end up as by-catch in the nets, inexplicably vanish from such state operated roccolo. Every year the game wardens and the forest police catch the state trappers poaching and close the installations without further ado.

As the supposedly legally operated Roccoli contravene international as well as national law, CABS seeks injunctions in the regional administrative courts to have them closed. We are successful every year and the ‘official’ trappers are required to remove their nets. The installations then remain abandoned for months at a time until a new permit is issued and we are back to square one.