‘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…
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..
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..
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..