After over a decade of increases, the good news is that the number of songbirds trapped and killed in the UK Sovereign Base on Cyprus fell by more than 70% in 2017: from 880,000 to 260,000 songbirds.  While 260,000 is still 260,000 too many, I am delighted that, as a result of our collective efforts, 620,000 more songbirds have flown on free from UK territory to complete their migration.

I wrote about the issue of bird trapping on Cyprus last year after my visit in May here, and again in September here. I now want to update you on what the RSPB is doing, along with our local partner, Birdlife Cyprus, and how we welcome the commitment that the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) Authorities are showing to end this practice on UK territory.

Cyprus is home to two UK Sovereign Base Areas: Akrotiri and Dhekelia. The latter lies amongst a mosaic of agricultural fields and incredibly species-rich, semi-arid coastal habitat, designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

Coastal habitat at Cape Pyla in the Dhekelia SBA (Credit: Andrew Callender)

It however hides a darker secret. It hosts some of the most intense bird-trapping across the whole of the Mediterranean: industrial-scale, illegal killing, primarily using mist nets, that fuels the demand from restaurants in the Republic of Cyprus for a dish called “ambelopoulia”: pickled songbirds of preferably blackcaps that sell for as much as Euro100 (£85) per dozen. The trapping, the trade and the consumption is all illegal. It is also indiscriminate, with unwanted species caught as ‘bycatch’, killed and discarded.

Bird trapping has been illegal in Cyprus since 1974. However, the numbers of birds killed has risen since the first survey in 2002 to a record high in 2016, of over 880,000 songbirds trapped in the autumn on the Dhekelia SBA alone.

Blackcap (Credit: Guy Shorrock)

Something had to be done and this change has been led by the work of the RSPB Investigations team. Birdlife Cyprus/RSPB analysis suggests that these efforts are now beginning to bear fruit.

You may wonder why the issue is so complex: after all, the trapping occurs on UK territory governed by the Ministry of Defence through the SBA Administration. Yet any image of a territory surrounded by razor wire fences and watch towers needs to be quickly dispelled; yes, both Akrotiri and Dhekelia each have an enclosed military base, yet the territory is purposefully open to the Republic. There are no checkpoints, not even any signs; farmers come and go, growing crops on agricultural land. But so do the bird trappers. Indeed, so emboldened had the trappers become that they planted groves of inon-native acacias across the natural landscape. Recent RSPB analysis estimates that the trappers had planted some 190 acres of acacia in the SAC on the southern part of Dhekelia alone. These groves are fed by kilometres of irrigation to ensure the acacia remain well-watered, and contain defined trapping ‘rides’ used by the trappers to run their nets. The songs of blackcaps are blasted through loudspeakers into the sky throughout the night, luring in migrating songbirds to their deaths in droves. I have shown footage of the practice before, but more (taken in 2016) can be seen here – but again, it is unsettling viewing.

In 2016, when contractors were brought in by the SBA Authorities to continue to clear the acacia (some clearance had taken place in 2014 and 2015), the local communities mobilised to blockade the clearance: the trappers know, just as we do, that the acacia allows this activity to continue – once removed, trapping will become very much harder.

The 2017 decline in birds killed is a result of the work undertaken by the Investigations team at the RSPB in 2016, working with the SBA Police. Using methods developed to catch wildlife criminals in the UK, covert surveillance was used to obtain graphic footage of trappers catching and killing birds. Some 19 individuals were caught on camera at seven sites and all have been convicted. Sentences too have begun to be given of a magnitude that act as a real deterrent: fines up to Euro 6600 have been accompanied by six month sentences suspended for three years meaning that if a trapper is caught again, he faces an automatic jail term. When RSPB Investigators returned in autumn 2017 it was immediately apparent that there had been an obvious reduction in trapping but that the remaining ‘hard core’ trappers had reacted by wearing balaclavas, to avoid being identified, and utilising metal detectors to find the covert cameras. However, a further five individuals were filmed bird trapping and court action is ongoing.

The actions of the SBA Authorities, with a series of progressive measures taken by Chief Constable Chris Eyre and his staff, have also been vital in progressing a solution to bird trapping: the SBA police purchase of a high specification surveillance drone (with support from RSPB) has added to the arsenal of available deterrents, while the Authorities are now utilising a wider range of criminal and civil sanctions, such as exclusion orders and vehicle impoundments, to ratchet up the pressure on the bird trapping community. The military, for their part, has been active in removing the irrigation pipe infrastructure and this is having a real effect: patches of acacia are dying back, reducing their attractiveness as trapping sites – at least for now.

The decline in the levels of 2017 trapping should be celebrated as an example of how such issues can be tackled through the sustained commitment by all those responsible. Yet this success needs to be seen in the context of the challenges ahead. The supply of birds from Dhekelia satisfies a demand that comes from within the Republic itself. Curbing this demand, especially through education and public awareness campaigns is a priority of Birdlife Cyprus.  Alas, there is no short-term fix, especially given the prevailing pro-hunting momentum within the Republic and the lack of any meaningful response from the European Commission to enforce the existing laws.

Within the SBA itself, the supply of birds trapped will only be brought to an end if the non-native acacia is finally cleared, restoring some of the last remaining areas of natural coastal habitat and removing the dark stain of the bird killing groves forever. This acacia clearance – suspended after the confrontation in 2016 – needs to focus ideally on those areas of acacia still most actively used by the remaining trappers.

You can find out more and keep up to date about our campaign here.

  • This is great news. I never cease to be amazed at the abilities of the RSPB’s investigations department, great stuff  So well done also to the RSPB generally, to Birdlife Cyprus and to Chris Eyre and his SBA police team.

    Last year I wrote to my MP asking him to take up the issue of the massacre of OUR birds on Cyprus with the MOD, which he did. So maybe that also helped a tiny tiny fraction.

    Now that definite progress towards stopping the massacres is clearly being made, these criminals must be pursued to the end so that this terrible practice is totally stamped out and that especially means getting rid of all the acacias.

    I shall be writing again to my MP asking him to keep the pressure on the MOD to finish the job.

    Once again, terrific work by all concerned  and thanks for doing a very difficult and, I am sure at times, a dangerous job.

  • Excellent news and result from a great piece of collaborative working.  Many congratulations to the Investigations Team, SBA Police and Birdlife Cyprus.