Robin titbit could mean doing bird

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'WHY NOT try polenta e osei?' the waiter might suggest in some trattoria in the pretty mountain valleys of northern Lombardy or the Veneto. 'A great speciality around here. Very good.'

Beware. This particular gastronomic experience could just land you - and his boss - in jail.

For, like as not, the row of tiny little birds (osei in Lombard dialect) on the skewer atop the steaming yellow semolina-like polenta will be robins, wrens, sparrows or finches - all of them now protected species.

La polenta co' gli osei, l'era il cibo degli dei - polenta with little birds was the food of the gods, as a Lombard saying goes. In a nation with some 2 million hunters, where cacciagione or game is the ultimate autumn delicacy, small birds are the most prized.

By cracking down on those who cook, serve and eat these tiny birds, Italy's environment ministry is hoping at last to put a stop to the centuries-old practice of trapping or shooting them, which violates European Community laws.

Poaching such birds has been banned here for some years, but to little purpose.

Innumerable devices, called archetti, are laid in the woods, baited with rowanberries.

They trap the birds, breaking their legs and leaving them to die slowly and in agony. Others are caught in fine nets, seduced by live decoys.

Foresters around Brescia, the original home of polenta e osei, confiscate at least 100,000 such traps every year, made in clandestine workshops and costing about 50p each.

Many birds end up on private dining tables but most go to restaurants over much of northern Italy where the speciality can cost anywhere from pounds 20 to pounds 50 a time.

One bird protection society estimates that 10 million of them end up on top of polenta every year.

So the ministry, now headed by Carlo Ripa di Meana, formerly the European Community's Environment Commissioner, is trying to tackle the problem from the other end.

Each trapped bird is being regarded as a corpus delicti and anyone who sells, buys or consumes one will be charged with something similar to receiving stolen goods and liable to be sentenced to up to six months in jail.

The ministry says that several people have already fallen into its net . . . .