The fate of the songbirds is now being pulled in two directions. While trappers are being prosecuted and given hefty fines, an amendment to the hunting law could be about to make life easier for the trappers. What is the future for songbirds in Cyprus?
Law and disorder
A controversial hunting law amendment has recently been approved in parliament, and those groups fighting bird trapping are now waiting to hear the results.
The proposals for the amendment included a clause that would allow certain game birds to be eaten in restaurants, providing the birds have been cooked in advance by the hunters. The songbird dish ambelopoulia remains a black market trade, but allowing game birds to be served in restaurants could make control of the illegal dish very difficult.
BirdLife Cyprus Director, Martin Hellicar, said: "The ‘game to restaurants’ clause is particularly problematic, as it will make it much harder to control the already widespread illegal sale of trapped birds in restaurants."
In addition, on the spot fines for offences have been proposed, rather than crimes being dealt with in court.
The songbird killing fields
Lured in by trappers, migratory songbirds are being caught in mist nets or glued to lime sticks. As the birds become tangled, they struggle through the night until the trappers arrive, ready to kill them and sell them to restaurants. Some can hold a glimmer of hope that on this occasion they might be rescued by an undercover group working to disrupt the illegal trade, but the chances are slim.
This is happening on UK soil. The premeditated crimes are taking place on a British military base; non-native acacia has been planted in the area, and speakers roar with an almost deafening birdsong to lure prey into the traps.
BirdLife Cyprus is one of the groups working to bring illegal songbird trapping to an end through surveillance, awareness raising, and advocacy. According to their annual reports, illegal trappings are higher than they have ever been, with the group estimating that last autumn around 800,000 birds were killed on this British military base alone. The figure could be 2.3 million across the whole of Cyprus.
Fighting wildlife crime
While this amendment could be a step backwards for songbirds, pressure from organisations like BirdLife Cyprus, the RSPB and the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) is starting to have an effect.
Recently, a number of bird trappers have been prosecuted and fined, after an RSPB investigation hid covert cameras that captured footage of over 80 birds being captured and killed.
Conservationist and wildlife crime investigator Guy Shorrock was part of the team behind the operation: “We actually have direct video footage of them setting the nets up, it’s all premeditated and planned, with trapping over several days. You can see them actively taking the birds out the nets and just throwing them like feathered Euro notes into a bucket.”
Alongside hefty fines, two of the trappers received four month sentences, which were suspended for three years. What impact these sentences will have on the individuals and other would-be trappers remains to be seen.
The investigator said: “We’re hoping this sort of thing, with this unseen technology that might be spying on them, with the threat of things like suspended sentences, may have some impact on the psyche of the trappers.”
While he said this is a clear signal from the courts that illegal trappings are being taken seriously, he is less positive about the lack of enforcement against the retail and restaurant trade, who serve up the dish, and ultimately drive the trade.
Clearing the way for songbirds
Those in the battle to protect songbirds now have two important tasks in order to keep more birds in the sky, and fewer in a black market dish. The first is to encourage meaningful enforcements for crimes. Second, and just as vital, is clearing the non-native acacia where the nets are placed.
Guy said: “If we can get the acacia cleared off the land, then it’s going to make it very difficult for them to use those areas to trap birds.”
He said that only a substantial clearance will have a meaningful impact, and that this has to be the key in the long term.
At the military base, a programme to clear the non-native plants is underway. However, the work is faced with protest from some of the local community, who last year created a blockade on the common ground. With only a small police force, dealing with local resistance is a real challenge for the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) police.
The conservationist said: “If we get these demonstrations with large numbers of Cypriots coming out, this creates a clear policing problem. How do you police that, when you’ve only got a small force?”
Alongside groups and activists, filmmakers are exposing the songbird slaughter to a UK audience, capturing footage of the threats and violence often faced by birds, activists and police alike. Chris Packham’s Massacre on Migration brought the issue to light, while Ruth Peacey joined the activists disrupting trappers in a BBC3 Undercover Tourist documentary.
As the issue gains more media attention, those who want to make an impact on the future of songbirds are being encouraged to write to the MOD or the Cypriot government, and ask for reassurances on what they are doing about this illegal trade and wildlife crime.
This autumn, another trapping survey will reveal whether the slaughters have shown any signs of slowing down. Meanwhile, the community awaits further news this week of just how damaging the hunting law changes will be.
Image courtesy of CABS: 274 mist nets seized over two nights during January 2017.