Political row flares over 'brutal slaughter' of three million birds a year in Cyprus

Migrating birds caught in the deadly middle of political spat over responsibility for 'cruel practice' of illegally trapping birds to use in local delicacy
  • @robhastings

Harvesting the skies of beautiful wild birds using sticks, nets and even arrays of speaker systems, the bird-catchers of Cyprus snare and kill nearly three million of their prey every year.

Their main target is the blackcap, a dainty warbler known as the northern nightingale for its sweet fluting song.

Now these pretty little creatures have flown into another messy situation: a political row over who's to blame for their slaughter, involving the British military, Cypriot villagers and a furious MEP.

Struan Stevenson, a Scottish Tory member of the European Parliament, has told Europe to “stop blaming Britain” for the “cruel practice,” after the Environment Commissioner accused the Ministry of Defence of not doing enough to stop poachers on its bases on the Mediterranean island.

With the two Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) at Akrotiri and Dhekelia subject to British laws and policing, the Slovenian politician Janez Potocnik said the EU and Cypriot authorities are unable to act against crimes on these vast tracts of land, calling them an “important” part of the problem and adding that the UK needed to join the “fight against illegal trapping of birds” if the issue is to be resolved.

Together with Robins, Blackcaps are trapped to supply taverna restaurants with meat for the local delicacy, ambelopoulia, through black-market trading - despite the practice being illegal since 1974.

But after being reassured by the MoD that it took the matter “very seriously” and that there is “no evidence to suggest that there are any restaurants selling illegally trapped birds in the SBAs,” Mr Stevenson launched his tirade against the European Commission for not taking responsibility.

“Instead of taking firm action, they turn a blind eye to the real problem and spinelessly attempt to place the blame with our military,” he said of the “brutal slaughter”.

“Perhaps they don't want to embarrass Cyprus, the current holders of the EU presidency, but the Commission appears to be deliberately ignoring the great work being done by our personnel… It should be ashamed by this attempt to pass the buck.”

Caught in the deadly middle of this spat are the birds, which pass over the island while migrating from Europe to Africa and are more susceptible to being caught because of the exhausting journey.

A total of 2.8million were trapped and killed last year at a rate of more than 7,700 a day, according to BirdLife Cyprus - and the RSPB told The Independent that the British bases are indeed a big part of the problem.

“These military bases are massive, as they also encompass quite a lot of hinterland where you have villages and communities, and it's on these sites that a lot of the trapping takes place,” said Grahame Madge, a spokesman for the charity.

“This isn't just a few guys trapping on a Sunday morning with a few nets, this is almost getting into the realms of organised crime. There are massive operations at some locations, to the point where shrubbery is planted across hillsides to attract the birds, irrigation systems are put in to water the bushes to make them attractive to insects and therefore to birds, sound systems are put in. They play the bird song at night as the birds are migrating over the island in an attempt to try and pull them in to trap them.”

Mr Madge admitted that it is an “awkward situation” for the MoD. “Part of their problem is that they don't want to crack down too heavily on the locals because it will create unrest and tensions that they would find difficult to manage. I've seen the Sovereign Base Area Police in operation, I know they do crack down.”

But he added: “If you have crimes where millions of birds are being killed every year, is the enforcement proportionate to the crimes taking place? We urge the MOD and the Cypriot authorities to take whatever action is necessary to avoid the deaths of millions of birds every year. We can't deny they're putting the effort in, but that level of effort doesn't seem to be in any way stemming the amount of slaughter that is taking place.”