Little birds, big trouble

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

A British military base is being used for a multi-million-quid criminal enterprise, possibly involving the Russian mafia — and Britain seems powerless to prevent it. Last year they had a crack at enforcement and had to give up. Mafia 1, British army 0.

It’s happening in Cyprus, in the British Sovereign Base Areas. The situation in Cyprus is a bit like the Schleswig-Holstein Question, but with more complex problems of nationality, culture and power. It has let this criminal enterprise thrive and prosper on the fringes, with the result that Britain is providing the infrastructure for a major illegal business with suspected links to Russian criminal organisations. Which is a touch embarrassing. And it’s all about little birds.

Simon Barnes and the RSPB’s Guy Shorrock consider what can be done for the Cypriot songbird’s plight:

An RSPB report published this week shows that last autumn the criminals hit a new record: they managed to kill 800,000 songbirds on Cape Pyla, which is British territory. Britain acquired the Sovereign Base Areas when the Republic of Cyprus acquired independence in 1960. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the British presence on Cyprus, and the British ownership of a chunk of it, is universally recognised as the best thing that ever happened to the island. Such tensions traditionally provide areas in which illegal activities can take place in the margins.

(Photo: BirdLife Cyprus)

The songbirds are killed to provide a local dish called ambelopoulia, ‘the caviar of Cyprus’, served illegally and expensively in Cypriot restaurants. No doubt the illegality adds savour, though it may not be to your taste, being a plateful of little corpses that you pop into your mouth and crunch, perhaps with yoghurt and cracked wheat.

The trade is against Cypriot and European law; Cyprus is a member of the EU, for all that it’s nearer Syria than mainland Europe. (Island nations often have odd ideas about cooperation with the EU, and tend to seek a pick’n’mix version of their obligations.)

Bird-trapping is a tradition here. And if you don’t accept that tradition, you’re a xeno-phobic anti-Cypriot and all kinds of other bad things. The fact that it’s a bad tradition is not a permitted part of the argument. Cyprus, like other Mediterranean islands, is a stopover point — a sort of motorway service station for rest and refuelling — for birds migrating between Europe and Africa. Cyprus, like the other islands, has traditionally seen this as an example of God’s bounty. The islanders have energetically harvested birds across centuries: peasant farmers eking out a difficult existence could help themselves to an autumnal treat of little birds caught on lime twigs. What could be wrong with that — save the squeamishness?

(Photo: BirdLife Cyprus)

The 21st-century version of the problem is based on a kind of democratisation of privilege. Ambelopoulia is a treat that has become a right. As a result, the traditional practice of bird-trapping has been industrialised. It was made illegal in 1974 and so it has also been criminalised. But it’s increasing every year: up 183 per cent since records began in 2002.

Here’s how you do it. First you find a place attractive to exhausted migrating birds: the best on the island is Cape Pyla, part of the Base Areas. Then you plant avenues of Australian acacias. Come the autumn migration, you join the trees up with mist netting, which is very fine and more or less invisible. You acquire a massive sound system, turn it up to 11 and play the sweet song of blackcap through the night. The birds come gratefully dashing down and get fatally entangled.

In the morning, you — or rather your large, accomplished and intimidating staff — walk the avenues, untangling each fluttering bird and gently biting it until you break its neck. The killing areas are surrounded by big trucks and big men: no police required today, thank you very much. Then you sell the dead birds to restaurants, which cook them and sell them as highly prestigious delicacies without fear of prosecution.

Industrial-scale exploitation of wild resources rapidly becomes unsustainable — the problem faced by fisheries across the world. If the trade is criminal, there is no option of quotas and control. By exploiting transient songbirds, Cyprus is depriving the rest of the world of birds that winter in Africa and breed in Europe. It’s not a local issue at all.

Marin Hellicar, director of Birdlife Cyprus, said: ‘It’s important to stress that the police on the Base Areas are doing what they can — and they’ve made some good progress. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them, and they’re finding it difficult to complete the job.’

On a firing range? On a military base? On a place where British soldiers go for training before a posting to Afghanistan? What’s going on here?

(Photo: BirdLife Cyprus)

Well, Cypriot politics are going on. To turn the might of the British army on a bunch of Cypriots engaged in a — ahem — traditional activity, however criminal, is not going to play well. Any enforcement must be done by police. The Base Area police have reduced the acacia avenues by 60 acres in a couple of years, but there are 90 acres left. Attempts to continue the clearance last year were met with organised and successful local resistance. This can only be a police operation, but it seems to need more policemen on the ground. So ultimately it comes down to the will of the British government.

You can oppose the industry on grounds of squeamishness: images of ambelopoulia are deeply unattractive to British eyes. You can oppose it on grounds of welfare: the process of trapping and killing is unquestionably cruel, and in many eyes morally repugnant. You can oppose it on simple legal grounds. You can oppose it on practical grounds: a criminal industry is a dangerous and disruptive thing to allow in any country. You can oppose it on grounds of international wildlife conservation: a world with fewer songbirds is a sad thing, both for humans and for songbirds.

The industry is an increasing embarrassment both for Cyprus and for Britain. Bird-trapping goes on all over Cyprus, but the Sovereign Base Areas are the centre of the business — and as a result, we have a British military base in the control of criminals.

The blackcap is the star of ambelopoulia. Nice birds, actually. They’ll be singing out all over Britain in a week or two. They’ve been called ‘the northern nightingale’, because they penetrate deep into our country and wherever they go, they fill the air with song.

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