Roccolo Yes, Roccolo no?

Roccolo’ is a word that many Italians have never heard, and among those who have, the great majority have never probably seen one in the flesh. Last Monday, we had the unique opportunity to visit one of these roccoli

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The roccolo is a traditional and marvellous structure that was used by hunters – or ‘bird catchers’ (uccellatori) as they call them here – to trap small migratory birds. These structures seem to have existed since the 15th century and were typical of the subalpine valleys of Northern Italy where these small animals were channelled before they crossed the Alps. They are composed by a middle-size wooden tower where hunters would spend hours and sometimes even days, surrounded by well-groomed vegetation and rows of trees in which  nets of several metres high were hidden. Birds, (generally of the thrush family such as song thrush, redwings, fieldfares, but also smaller species such as chaffinches) were attracted by live calls who had been kept in light-less conditions for months in order to make them believe spring had arrived and thus sing. Once a sufficient number of birds were present in the area, the bird catcher would throw a small wooden scarecrow in the shape of a bird that would appear as a predator and cause the animals to rush off as soon as possible, with many of them ending up entangled in these nets, which size depended on the type of birds that had to be caught. If the way these animals are caught and the live calls are kept in captivity are undoubtedly ethically controversial, it has to be said that the aesthetics of the whole structure and how it is maintained (it requires months and months of work beforehand) is fascinating. Especially in the areas between the Po valley and the Alps that are often degraded and urbanised.

Have a look at the footage of a songthrush captured in one of the nets..

https://vimeo.com/77479190

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This traditional way of hunting became illegal some decades ago as indiscriminate trapping was not allowed anymore (many undesired species happened to get entangled). The majority of the roccoli were closed; some are used for scientific purposes (bird ringing) and only a few are controversially kept open and used to satisfy the high live calls supply in the area. This is obviously a debated issue, as environmental groups want to close them and they actually manage every year to reduce the maximum catch allowed, which makes think that the traditional use of these structures is doomed. On the other side, when we met with these last bird ringers who happily welcomed us to spend a couple of hours with them along with local salami and a glass of wine, we figured out how for some hunters (especially the older ones) this tradition represents not only a way for them to practice a tradition that is embedded in the nostalgic stories of their ancestors, but very simply a way for them to spend a whole day with their friends, eat and drink and, as pointed out by one of them, a place to go to when their wives are bugging them! The alternative for many of these Roccolari would be to return to their shooting hides, killing instead of trapping..

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Some say that when no controls are there, these activities might not be as ‘clean’ as what we saw, and that sometimes protected species that get trapped are then kept and eaten like the culinary tradition would recommend…and for these reasons it is hard for us to have an opinion on whether these last dinosaurs of the tradition should be kept open or not. However, as always, we wonder if there isn’t perhaps a bit of rejection a priori and if it could not be possible to imagine that these structures could be used in a controlled and sustainable way, since the abandonment of their use would probably mean the environmental abandonment and degradation of these amazing sites, as well as another cultural loss which will once again feed the almost irremediable conflict between environmentalists and hunters..

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7 responses to “Roccolo Yes, Roccolo no?

  1. Hi guys! Two questions: environmental groups want to reduce the catch because of the end-uses of the birds caught, or because the uccellatori don’t follow the kinds of welfare protocols you would use for scientific mist netting? Because if they are mainly ringing birds I don´t understand the problem. Also, could you provide a little context for the video? Why are there guys in uniform, and what is the man explaining?

    • 1) They want to reduce the catch mainly because they are against the use of these roccoli by hunters in general. Scientists that use some of these structures dont use alive bird calls, but they just catch those birds who get entangled in the net. Of course the argument of lack of welfare protocols is a strong one on which they can push. 2) The two guys in uniform are two policemen who agreed to give us the authorization to visit the roccolo (otherwise it would have been very complicated). The guy is speaking in Brescian dalect ans he is explaining how birds arrive from the valley and get entangled in the net.. but the literal translation is hard to get even for us!

  2. One should also add the question of to what sources of protein people turn when they stop having access to birds. Cattle farming, probably? With pretty significant environmental impacts on its behalf. It’s undeniable that hunting has many positive sides to it, ranging from the time spent in nature, to first-hand knowledge of biology and ecology, to social bonding. But I guess the key question is whether this type of activities can be done in a more rational and sustainable way. Can you free the non-target birds that get caught, in good shape? Are younger, and perhaps more educated hunters more open and aware of the need to do things differently? Could you mix research and hunting activities in one same roccolo?

  3. Interesting points, not easy to explain in a few lines though. The thing of getting proteins was the historic reason underpinning this practice, but with the increase of life conditions this is not the case anymore: the hunt of little birds is now merely a a tradition, a passion. We saw (and released) some birds which were not species that could be hunted and they generally managed to fly away although a few hours entangled in a net was obviously not without effects. Young hunters don’t seem to take over this practice with particular interest and with the same passion, as managing and cherishing these strucutes requires a huge bulk of effort and time. It seems that the practice could be done in a sustainable way and supported by scientific evidence, but there are two main issues: 1) there is a cultural problem of illegality which hinders a proper knowledge of the real effects of this practice and 2) environmental groups often have an a priori rejection of this practice which makes it very difficult even just to have a dialogue.. That’s why even hunters told us that these roccoli will probably close down in a few years..

  4. I saw some years ago a roccolo in Friuli: yes it was a site very insteresting a green circle limited by toll trees (something like Stonenghen), at first see I tought “Well nice site, very natural, green, quite with wild flowers and so on….” But when I was explained about what happen I understand that it was a tragedy, a carnage for small birds…….I don’t think that it is necessary something like a war to have salami and wine with friends

  5. There has to be an opportunity here to get grant from LIPU or Birdlife Europe to train some of these guys in bird ringing. They get to keep their traditions and in addition we get some valuable italian information. I know it’s not easy but it’s not a big leap for both side to make

    • Some of these Roccoli have been converted for bird ringing purposes (see roccolo costa perla converted in 1988) and what you say is actually possible as the true passion of many of these guys is not killing but capturing the birds.. Also many of these structures are found in highly highly modified and degraded landscapes and provide an important refuge for many bird species.. It is very haed for the two sides to cooperate but we hope to see more of this in the near future!

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