A few days ago Chris Packham reported the encouraging news that, this autumn, there appears to have been a reduction in the level of bird trapping within the Eastern Sovereign Base Area (ESBA), a British military base on Cyprus close to the holiday resort of Ayia Napa.

Having recently returned from Cyprus myself, I can confirm the signs do indeed look encouraging and believe the main reason for this more positive outlook has been the enforcement work which RSPB Investigations started with the Sovereign Base Area (SBA)  Police in 2016. Earlier in September I blogged about the work RSPB Investigations undertook in Cyprus last year. Myself and a colleague installed covert cameras at seven locations on the ESBA, which caught some 19 individuals. Following the prosecution of 14 of these individuals, on 27 September the five remaining individuals all entered guilty pleas to a number of bird trapping offences and will be sentenced later in November. I’ll update this blog when the sentencing result becomes known. The following footage shows two of the men in action removing and killing birds.

A trapper dispatching a blackcap with a knife - he and four associates are due to be sentenced in November 2017

This autumn I returned to Cyprus with RSPB Investigations colleagues to once again work with SBA Police taking action against bird trapping. After the success of last year, we knew the trapping community would be on high alert and we were understandably anxious about how they would respond to any similar work this year. The police had already received local gossip about the intended use of balaclavas to avoid being identified and the use of metal detectors to try to find our cameras.

On arrival, it was clear the success of our work last year had been very well received by the SBA Police and that they were taking further steps to bring more pressure on the bird trapping community. With help from the RSPB, the police purchased a high specification drone. This is equipped with a powerful camera and thermal imaging equipment. While we were in Cyprus they held an open day for the media to see the drone in action, complete with a reconstruction of men being filmed bird trapping and arrested. This is a really impressive piece of equipment and we are aware the police have some ongoing enquiries for bird trapping based on video evidence from the drone.

A high-spec drone, part-funded by the RSPB, is now being used by the SBA Police to tackle bird trapping (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

Chief Constable Chris Eyre has also encouraged the use of a range of criminal and civil sanctions to bring more pressure on the trappers. In addition, the military started removing some of the large amounts of irrigation piping used to supply illegally abstracted ground water to the areas of non-native acacia. These plots have been planted and cultivated by the trappers and form the killing fields where they set their illegal mist nets. Take a look at a bird's eye view from the drone showing the military at work.

Some of the irrigation pipework removed by the military from illegal trapping sites on the ESBA (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

The covert surveillance work this year turned out, not surprisingly, to be more challenging. However the support from Divisional Commander Jon Ward and his staff was excellent and with some persistence we were eventually able to catch several people on camera and enquiries are now progressing against a number of individuals. The evidence gathered also led to a raid at an address in the Cyprus Republic where further evidence was recovered.

However, what was particularly encouraging was what appeared to be a reduction in trapping in parts of the ESBA. Several traditional trapping sites, including all seven sites where we had filmed people in 2016, were not in use this autumn. I also met with members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS). Their dedicated staff and volunteers have worked in Cyprus since 2008 and it was also their impression that this year seemed quieter within both the Republic of Cyprus and the ESBA.

While we were there, BirdLife Cyprus were undertaking the annual autumn trapping survey. The results, which will be published early next year, will give us an accurate picture of any change in the level of trapping intensity. Any meaningful reduction will mean that huge numbers of migrant birds have been spared a grisly fate at the hands of the trappers.

Outside the ESBA, within the Republic of Cyprus, the problem with demand from the restaurant trade and the complete and continuing failure by the Cypriot authorities to take any meaningful enforcement action remains a key problem in the whole bird trapping issue. Like all crime, it is about supply and demand. There has, however, been some new Cypriot legislation introducing a fixed-penalty system for trapping and poaching offences. There are set fines per mist net, limestick, snares, dead protected bird or animal etc. As the fines are per item and cumulative, there have already been some eye-watering fines, as high as 21,000 Euros in one case. However, these people may elect to dispute the fines in court, so we will need to wait a while to see the outcome of this process and how effective these are in the long term. However, it does appear at the moment that these fines may have had some deterrent effect on the bird trappers.

Clearance of large areas of non-native acacia within the ESBA has to remain a key priority for the UK government (Guy Shorrock RSPB)

Whilst tackling the restaurant trade is the key issue in the Republic of Cyprus, for the SBA authorities the long-term goal has to be removal the many patches of non-native acacia in the ESBA. In late 2014, removal of these acacia plots began. After early encouraging progress, during 2016 this work ground to a halt following large scale local protests from the trapping community. Completion of this work is badly needed to secure a permanent reduction on trapping levels within the ESBA. The RSPB is currently making an assessment of how much of the trapping acacia within the core range area has actually been cleared and how much work remains to be done.

Whilst more action is needed, I look forward with great interest to this year’s BirdLife Cyprus survey results to see if we have started to make some impact. If this shows there has been a meaningful reduction in trapping this autumn, we hope this will provide the SBA authorities with an safer environment to progress further with the acacia clearance. While I am hopeful the survey news will be good, we have to be acutely aware of 'false dawns' - when I first got involved in this work in 2000, positive enforcement action quickly lead to a significant reduction in trapping. However, over the years it has insidiously crept back up, reaching record levels within the ESBA. Keeping the foot on the pedal will be essential to build on any progress this time around.  

How can I help?

If you’d like to support the efforts to end the illegal trapping on British Territory in Cyprus, you can write to your MP in support of further acacia clearance (details on our ‘Nature’s Heroes’ blog) and find out more about BirdLife Cyprus’ work here.