The duck swim in Can Picafort. | Miquel À. Cañellas


Joan Monjo is the mayor of Santa Margalida. Speaking about the summer fiestas in Can Picafort, he argued recently that "the traditional release should return". He was referring to the ducks that used to be released into the sea close to the Hotel Mar y Paz at midday every August 15. People would swim after the ducks and attempt to catch them. The mayor says that the ducks didn't suffer any harm. Other than perhaps being eaten. As far as I'm aware, there were no rules to stipulate that the ducks had to be returned whence they had come - typically from the torrent in Son Bauló.

But how does one define harm? The mayor's observation is somewhat at variance with opinion that animals are sentient beings. In this regard, the duck release would have provoked fear and stress. Spanish law now expressly refers to sentient beings. Animal protection legislation in the Balearics dating back thirty years was less explicit but nevertheless referred to animals being put into situations that were "unnatural". Ducks do land in the sea from time to time. But out of their own accord, and not with a whole load of humans splashing around attempting to capture them.

The legislation of 1992 was ignored year after year by Santa Margalida town hall, as it had effectively banned the use of ducks. When the pressure of "denuncias" became so great, the town hall backed down. In 2007, the ban was introduced.

This didn't sit well with traditionalists, numbered among whom was and is Joan Monjo. The ban was flouted in that some ducks were smuggled onto the boats and released. This happened subsequently but hasn't for at least ten years now, the duck release and swim having gained in popularity, partly because onlookers have wanted to see if anyone dares to release a duck but more so because the thousands of toy duck substitutes have made the event a thoroughly family affair.

The opposition to the ban gave rise to one particularly weird video, which featured a pope-like figure blessing ducks in the Son Bauló torrent. There was also talk of seeking to amend that 1992 legislation, which oddly enough exempted fiesta traditions involving animals if they had more than one hundred years of history. The ducks of Can Picafort are said to date from the 1930s and to when a landowner released ducks for workers to swim after. The amendment, never formally proposed, was to reduce the 100 years to 75.

Legislative reform in the Balearics has since reinforced the "unnatural" concept. This has therefore resulted in two traditions in Pollensa having been abandoned - the cockerel at the top of the pine tree for the Sant Antoni fiestas and the lamb carried in a bag by Sant Joan Pelós, when he dances at Corpus Christi. Both of these generated a good deal of fuss, traditionalists arguing that things wouldn't be the same. When Tomeu Cifre returned as mayor in 2019, he offered to provide a lamb from the family farm. The rector of Pollensa politely declined the offer. There is now no lamb, while the cockerel is a toy.

Mallorca is very keen on retaining its customs and traditions. Which is perfectly understandable and is to be applauded, but this isn't to say that traditions can't be modified. The two Pollensa events and the duck swim have never been classified as fiestas in the cultural interest. Were they to have been, then eliminating the animal would have been problematic, as this classification comes with an obligation to maintain traditions intact.

At a wholly different level, it is precisely this type of institutional protection that has stymied Balearic government attempts to outlaw bullfighting or to make the holding of bullfights untenable. Spain's parliament, then controlled by the Partido Popular, passed a 2013 law which stated that bullfighting was an indisputable part of the country's cultural heritage; the Constitutional Court in Madrid has ratified this.

With the ducks of Can Picafort, the ban has now been in place for fifteen years. Why keep going on about it? The swim has taken on a different character. There is an association with the past, while the tradition for the fiestas has not been diminished, proving that animals are not necessary as an entertainment.