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ROME – It appeared to be yet another violation of coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions when Italian police interrupted a lunch of around 20 people last week near the northern city of Brescia.

But then they stumbled upon an illegal massacre on the menu.

Authorities caught the group at a local government building preparing a barbecue of around 65 protected migratory birds, mostly finches, including two hawfinches, a shy species and a brambling, known for its orange breast and brambling. white rump.

The Rifle Forest Division, Italy’s National Military Police, was informed of the illegal lunch gathering via a phone call and found the guests surrounding a buffet of appetizers and drinks, but no main courses. Guests assured police that everything was in compliance with regulations, with masks and a distance respected. But upon closer inspection, Riflemen’s agents found a large saucepan filled with dozens of fried songbirds hidden under the table.

They recognized protected species, officers said, by the form of their bills. Some are globally threatened.

“Shameful,” said the Italian anti-hunting league.

“Infuriating,” the animal welfare league said.

“A delight,” said Floriano Massardi, a regional manager who, like many in the region, enjoys eating songbirds on a skewer.

The area where the forbidden party took place, Gardone Val Trompia, sits in the middle of an important migration route for thrushes, greenfinches and blackbirds.

For centuries, hunters in the area have set traps for them in bushes and tree branches, or cut them down from the sky. Whether captured on the ground or in the air, they were often found next to the polenta or impaled on “the Brescian spit.”

But the local tradition has become largely illegal as lawmakers have taken steps to protect an increasing number of species and families of birds. Nonetheless, the valleys north of Brescia remained Italy’s most dangerous kill zone for many songbirds, with hundreds of thousands illegally hunted each year.

Italy itself is a bird danger zone. Five million protected birds are slaughtered there each year. This represents about a fifth of the total number of birds illegally killed each year along the Mediterranean coast, northern Europe and the Caucasus, according to BirdLife International.

Animal welfare associations have said they hope the raid will put a new emphasis on illegal activity in the country which is Europe’s most blatant songbird killer.

The punishment for those who attended the lunch will depend on the charges, but the fine could be more than 2,000 euros for the guest who brought the birds.

Last week, a Brescia court held the first hearing of a local man who kept 788 dead songbirds in his freezer. They included blackbirds, which are illegally sold for 3-5 euros to restaurants. They are particularly appreciated for their thin beak, considered by some to be edible.

In Italy, hunting of any animal is only allowed with a permit, and there are penalties for hunting protected species and selling them. For years, the issue has been at the center of a political clash between animal rights activists often backed by progressive politicians – who have demanded stricter limitations – and conservative hunting associations and politicians, who aim to facilitate hunting.

Animal rights activists say songbirds are endangered across Europe, with 40 once abundant migratory species disappearing.

“There is a general biodiversity crisis,” said Annamaria Procacci, board member of ENPA, the Italian animal welfare league, and former Green Party senator.

“And then there are people who enjoy it.”

Mr Massardi, the official who called the protected bramblings a delicacy, is a hunter who has offered to remove the protections for some songbirds, including those on the Friday menu. He said he wanted to save the tradition.

It was acting “in the name of the Brescian spit,” he said, a typical dish made from slices of pork, chicken, rabbit and songbirds. Finch and brambling, he says, give the spit a distinctive tangy taste that he hasn’t savored in 10 years.

Mr Massardi did not approve of Friday’s lunch, saying it was an offense to all restaurant owners who were suffering from government-imposed closures. But he didn’t see why the government should ban what was on the table.

“I don’t understand why the chicken, yes, and these birds, no,” he says. “Chickens are birds too.”

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