Migrant songbird survival hangs on wing and prayer
GOT to admit that I’m fizzing at the moment, not least because I was watching some songbirds recently as they gathered to fly south for the winter, and then remembered it’s not just the weather and long distance they need to negotiate.
Every autumn the UK Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia on the island of Cyprus witnesses the greatest and most concentrated illegal trapping of migrant birds across the whole of Cyprus. Rows of mist nets are strung between planted invasive Australian acacia trees, illegally irrigated by water from boreholes delivered through a huge network of pipes.
Working together, the RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus reported that 800,000 birds were killed on the Dhekelia Base in the autumn of 2016 alone. It’s a number that has risen dramatically over the last decade, providing an ever-increasing supply of birds for a banned local dish - ambelopoulia (a plate of cooked pickled songbirds).
This is industrial-scale organised crime on a British Territory. It is not a traditional, low impact way of life as its perpetrators like to project, and has been forbidden by the law in Cyprus since 1974.
The Army Base authorities have started to take action. In 2014 they began a programme of acacia removal and recently, following specialist surveillance support from RSPB Investigations, have pursued convictions against the trappers resulting in increased financial penalties. In July and August the authorities also took steps to disrupt the infrastructure.
But the acacia removal ground to a halt in autumn 2016 after the local trapping community blockaded the site, and prevented further clearance. The MoD is contending with organised crime worth over €15 million per year across Cyprus, and it shows. But this illegal activity on British Territory feeds the market for ambelopoulia, lines the criminals’ pockets and bolsters their power. And the reality is that it will not cease until these groves of invasive acacia trees – now net laden death traps for the songbirds – go completely.
Our songbirds are about to start their autumn migration, including those from Greater Manchester, and millions will be trapped and killed.
Please write to your MP asking them to press Defence Minister Mark Lancaster to urgently resume acacia clearances in the UK Sovereign Base Area on Cyprus.
Here are some points you might include:
1. Every autumn, an estimated 800,000 songbirds are trapped and killed on the UK Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia on Cyprus. Many are rare or declining species, slaughtered whilst seeking rest stops on migration.
2. The trappers using the UK Sovereign Base Area have planted swathes of Australian acacia trees, watered by kilometres of irrigation piping, to support hundreds of mist nets that catch these birds at an industrial scale.
3. The Ministry of Defence and the Sovereign Base Authorities have taken praiseworthy steps to remove some areas of acacia and irrigation, and to pursue convictions despite difficult conditions and personal risk. However, acacia clearance stopped in autumn 2016 after trappers blockaded the soldiers clearing the acacia.
4. As a Sovereign Base Area in another country, this issue needs to be handled sensitively, but it is also an issue with a clear solution. The UK Government says that it wants to show global leadership on protecting the natural environment, and this is one area where we can do this. We must meet our responsibilities on UK territory and stop the illegal slaughter of wild birds.
●● Golden Oriole trapped in a mist net on Cyprus