British police fly to the rescue of migrating song birds destined for Cypriot dinner tables

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The Independent Online

Ambelopoulia is a word only spoken furtively in the tavernas of Cyprus these days. It is the name of the dish that will claim the lives of one million migrating song birds this autumn in a slaughter of rare cruelty.

The illegal delicacy, consisting of whole pickled robins and a similar-sized warbler called the black cap, has been in danger of disappearing from the clandestine menus of rural restaurants on the Mediterranean island after a crackdown ahead of its entry to the European Union last year.

In the past three years, it is estimated that 20 million birds, heading south from Britain and other countries to winter in Africa, have been saved by a British-funded campaign to end trapping on Cyprus. The effort has been spearheaded by British police in charge of the two UK military bases on the island who have set up a specialist task force to catch the trappers at work, last year arresting 43 operating in the British-administered area.

But conservationists warned yesterday that demand for ambelopoulia, a traditional rural luxury, remains strong and industrial-scale poaching using barbarous techniques is continuing to satisfy it.

Research on behalf of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has found that a hard-core of trappers will kill at least 1.2 million robins and black caps this autumn, along with a "by-catch" of many thousands of other birds, including rare indigenous species.

Every year in the dying days of September, the parched countryside of the south-eastern corner of Cyprus is spread with fine-mesh fishing nets, which are almost invisible, strung between groves of acacia trees planted and irrigated by the trappers, who can expect to make £30,000 during a hunting season. Electronic bird calls, imported from Italy, are used to lure their quarry towards a lingering death as wings and legs become entangled in the black nylon nets.

Another method of trapping uses pomegranate branches smeared in a sticky resin, known as lime sticks. Birds often gnaw off their own legs in an effort to get free. Those trapped in close proximity will attack each other, pecking out eyes and feathers.

Martin Hellicar, of BirdLife Cyprus, a conservation body funded by the RSPB, said: "Trapping has been reduced dramatically in recent years, but it is still a practice which kills huge numbers of birds in an unacceptable manner. There remains a demand for ambelopoulia and it is a lucrative trade - they sell for £22 a dozen. It has also been driven underground, so you have to know where to get it.

"The birds are cooked in a private house and transported to the restaurant to avoid raids by the police. You also have to order with a code word - they are sometimes served in vine leaves, so you might ask for the special vine leave dish."

The study for the RSPB found that while nearly nine out of 10 Cypriots disapprove of trapping, some 2 per cent of the population - 16,000 people - eat ambelopoulia regularly. The dish and the methods used to trap the birds have been illegal since at least 1974, but critics argue until 2000 enforcement was slack.

Now the Cypriot government and the British police claim a series of successes against the trappers, whittling down their numbers from 300 to about 30. But there are concerns that those remaining include a resolute criminal element in the business purely for the profit that can be reaped from selling each robin or blackcap for the equivalent of nearly £2 per bird.

The poachers are also growing increasingly sophisticated, setting up their nets in private enclosures to force police to obtain search warrants, slowing their efforts. Jim Guy, commander of the Sovereign Base Area in the south-east corner of Cyprus, said: "We have a dedicated patrol at this time of the year whose job is to locate and disrupt the trappers. But as we have reduced their numbers, so those that remain are harder to tackle and difficult to catch.

"As far as they are concerned, they can do a couple of hours trapping before dawn, make a substantial amount of money, then go to their day jobs."

While efforts continue to choke off demand with conservation lessons in schools and heavy fines for any restaurant caught serving ambelopoulia, experts said one of the most urgent concerns was the effect of the trapping on less common species than the robin and black cap.

According to campaigners, more than 100 species fall victim to the lime sticks and nets, including birds only found on the island such as the Cyprus scops owl, the Cyprus warbler and the Cyprus pied wheatear.

Superstition dictates any bird found in the traps that is not destined for the kitchen must be killed or no more will be caught. They are dispatched by having their skulls broken between finger and thumb.

A spokesman for the RSPB said: "The trapping is desperately cruel. Our field workers came across a scops owl recently that had eaten off its legs to get free of a lime stick. Quite apart from the welfare of these birds, there is very real concern at the impact of the trapping on the populations of indigenous birds. We have a tiny minority on Cyprus who are bringing shame on the island and more needs to be done to end this practice."