Prince CHARLES has demanded urgent action to stop the annual “barbaric slaughter” of half a million migrating songbirds at a British Army base in Cyprus.
The creatures, familiar to millions of British gardens, often suffer for hours after being illegally snared in nets or on glue-coated sticks, before being killed and served as a delicacy in Greek restaurants at £65 (about R1 163) a plate.
In a private letter, the prince has taken the highly unusual step of writing to the most senior Army commander in Cyprus, and to the island’s president, condemning the “industrial scale killing”. Charles claims that it is big business, run by “serious organised criminals”.
The killing fields are centred on the British Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia, on Cyprus’s southern coast, close to the tourist hot-spot of Ayia Napa. British soldiers train on firing ranges there before serving in Afghanistan.
Trappers place their lures at night. Early the next morning, they return for their grisly harvest, ripping the terrified birds from the fine-mesh “mist” nets or glue-covered branches, often leaving the entangled feet behind, then killing them with a cocktail stick or a penknife to the throat.
Many will be used in the dish Ambelopoulia, in which the boiled or fried birds are eaten whole, save for the beak. Cypriots regards the meal as “natural viagra”.
Trapping takes place during the autumn and spring migrations, and the illicit and sickening trade is worth £12 million (R214m) a year.
In his letter, Prince Charles writes: “Disturbingly, autumn mist-netting levels are now much higher on this British soil than in the Republic of Cyprus, with mist netting in the British Sovereign Base Areas estimated to have increased 180 percent since 2002.’
The trapping, declared illegal in 1974, is sophisticated and large-scale. On land within the 129km2 Dhekelia enclave, tenant farmers have planted hectare upon hectare of non-native acacia bushes to attract the passing birds as they look for insects.
Loudspeakers are also set up, powered by car batteries, broadcasting the mating call of the blackcap – the main target of the trappers – as a lure for the birds.
The glue sticks, coated with a tacky lime solution, are placed in the tree branches, and vertical mist nets erected between the rows of acacia bushes which entangle not just the blackcaps, but all flying creatures, from robins to song thrushes and even small owls and other birds of prey.
Charles calls for the acacia groves and their irrigation system to be ripped out.
His letter to Major-General Richard Cripwell, Commander of British Forces in Cyprus, and copied to President Nicos Anastasiades, begins: “I am writing with regard to the industrial-scale killing of songbirds which is currently occurring on the Cyprus Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia.
“In particular, to ask you to have the infrastructure which permits this illegal slaughter (planted invasive acacia) to be removed by the start of the autumn migration period in September.
This would not only at a stroke save hundreds of thousands of birds being killed illegally on British soil, but also prevent significant profits flowing into the pockets of serious organised criminals who control this barbaric practice.”
He says the bird haul included “many species much-loved by the British public, such as robins, song thrushes and barn owls”.
Martin Hellicar, Cyprus representative of Birdlife International, said: “An Army training ground has been turned over to wildlife crime.”
Conservationists say bird trapping has changed in the past 20 years from a small-scale activity intended to put food on the family table into a major criminal enterprise. About 30 trappers, some of whom operate on Dhekelia, are believed to dominate the trade.
Mafia figures with links to prostitution, drugs and gambling are suspected to be among them.
The effect on European bird populations is devastating.
Favourite garden birds migrating between Britain and their African wintering quarters are among the estimated 1.5 milli on birds slaughtered on Cyprus every year. Birdwatch International estimates that about 500 000 are killed on British bases.
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds spokesperson Grahame Madge welcomed the prince’s intervention. “It’s a staggering level of slaughter and we hope that it will provide a catalyst for change.”
According to the royal society’s figures, several species have drastically declined in the UK in the past two decades.
More than 150 different species have been recorded as killed in the nets, including globally endangered birds such as red-backed shrikes, barn owls and rollers.
Viktoras Papadopoulos, spokesman for the Cyprus president, said: “The president told Prince Charles we do everything we can within the law to enforce the law on trapping. We have the same concerns. He is respected in Cyprus and this will have an effect.”
Arrested trappers are given fines of a few hundred euros, but one man was recently jailed for two months. Critics say the treatment of trappers fails to deter.
Last week a police patrol went out hunting the trappers. None were caught, but a net with dead birds was found, along with dozens of metal support poles and a loudspeaker wired to a car battery.
British Sovereign Base Areas police Divisional Commander James Guy, pointed out that restaurants in Cyprus were rarely prosecuted for serving bird dishes. “There are politicians who appear to have a very sympathetic attitude towards trappers,” he said. One Cypriot political figure made light of the controversy, saying: “The birds are a delicacy. Catching them is traditional. You are hypocritical. Not long ago English aristocrats hunted and killed foxes – you can’t even eat them.”
The prince writes frequently to government ministers and his letters have been at the centre of legal action.
They have so far remained secret as the Attorney General has blocked a Freedom of Information request for disclosure of the letters. This month the veto was ruled unlawful by judges, but the letters remain under wraps awaiting a Supreme Court appeal. - Mail on Sunday