There has recently been better news from Cyprus about the scale of illegal song trapping on the island.  Yet, concerns have now emerged about the UK Government considering plans to relax wildlife protections to enable the development of new resorts, roads and car parks on important wildlife sites.  Below, my colleague Natalie Hall, who is our senior advisor on international site protection, outlines the threat and what needs to be done.

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Conservation groups in the UK and Cyprus are calling for the UK’s Ministry of Defence to reject plans and a new planning regime that would see neon lights and concrete replace turtle-nesting beaches and flamingo wetlands on the unspoilt and undeveloped Akrotiri peninsula, a British Territory on the Mediterranean island.

Episkopi Cliffs (Photo by Birdlife Cyprus)

The Akrotiri peninsula is the largest wetland complex on Cyprus and perhaps the most important area for biodiversity in Cyprus, certainly the most important for birds. Over 800 plant species,  over 300 bird species, and over 30 different habitat types have been recorded. The iconic Flamingo (with large congregations – regularly 2,000-15,000) is among those recorded whilst the Episkopi Cliffs hold the most important breeding colony in Cyprus for the Griffon Vulture. The western part of the peninsula provides important nesting grounds for Loggerhead and Green sea turtles. Great numbers of waterbirds, regularly more than 20,000 in winter and spring visit the area.

The UK government designated it equivalent to a Special Protection Area (Natura 2000 site for birds) and a Special Area of Conservation (Natura 2000 site for habitats, flora and fauna other than birds) in 2010 and 2015 respectively. It has also been designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and has been recognised as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

It has been assessed as the most coherent and ecologically complex of the coastal ecosystem in Cyprus. In addition to the individual species of interest, each having their own particular characteristics, there is a priceless overall value in the unique mosaic of their habitats which are ecologically interconnected.

The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which include British military bases and installations, as well as other land, were retained by the British under the 1960 treaty of independence, signed by the United Kingdom, Greece, Turkey and representatives from the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, and ending British colonial rule in Cyprus. The territory serves an important role as a station for signals intelligence.

Threats to the Akrotiri peninsula

Over the last three years the UK has played a vital role in reducing illegal bird trapping on these ‘Sovereign Base Areas’, bringing the estimated number of songbirds caught and killed down from over a million every year to just 80,000. However, this success, built on close cooperation between SBA authorities, RSPB, BirdLife Cyprus and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), could be undone not just by the recent reported rise in the use of limesticks but also if plans to build tourist resorts and roads are approved. These plans would see legal protections loosened so that irreplaceable natural spaces, including internationally important wetlands, can be destroyed to open the area up to development. There is a big political push for the creation of tourist resorts with accompanying infrastructure, scattered isolated housing and recreation facilities as well as intensive livestock-rearing facilities.

Fan-tailed Warbler trapped on limestick (Photo Credit: Birdlife Cyprus)

A policy statement has been drafted concerning changes in the spatial planning regulations outside military areas within the SBAs. This was based on an agreement signed between the Republic of Cyprus and the UK in January 2014. The policy Statement has gone through a Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment, which concluded that some of the statements provisions may significantly damage some environmental aspects of the area. The policy statement is currently pending final approval, and if it is not amended before final approval, the published draft that concerns changes in the planning regulations within the SBAs, could add significant pressure to this already poorly managed natural area.

We are concerned that plans are being considered that would destroy pristine areas of the island that are internationally recognised for their importance to wildlife. At a time when the Commonwealth is promoting the urgent need to save our natural world and the Prime Minister of the UK is calling on nations to protect wildlife, it is disturbing that the Ministry of Defence would consider a plan that would undermine its own environment legacy and destroy the natural beauty that brings people and wildlife to the island.

The RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus are writing to James Heappey MP, Minister at the Ministry of Defence, to raise these issues and look forward to constructive engagement with the MoD and SBA Authorities to ensure the protection of these habitats for the millions of migrating birds that use the island to cross the Mediterranean every year.

Casino construction visible behind Zakaki Marsh (Photo by Birdlife Cyprus)

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