More than 800,000 songbirds were illegally killed on a British military base and sold as a delicacy in Cypriot restaurants last year, campaigners have revealed.
Disturbing footage and images have been released showing birds struggling to free themselves from the nets before their heads are bitten off by criminal gang members, who can earn millions of Euros from the illegal activity.
The illegal killing of songbirds, such as blackcaps and robins, is estimated to be at an all-time high since monitoring began in 2002, new research by the RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus suggests.
It is estimated that the number of nets used to trap birds remains at record high levels in the British Territory, with an increase of 183% since monitoring began.
Efforts to remove non-native Australian acacia trees which have been planted on Ministry of Defence land to lure the birds were forced to be abandoned due to protests from trappers.
The songbirds are illegally trapped and killed to provide restaurants with the main ingredient for the local and expensive delicacy of ambelopoulia- a plate of cooked songbirds.
Whereas the small British Sovereign Base Area (SBA) authorities had successfully removed 54 acres of acacia in the preceding two years, this autumn they were only able to remove a further seven acres, leaving around 90 acres of this illegal-killing infrastructure still standing on the British firing range, campaigners said.
Conservation groups are calling for urgent support from the British Government to ensure the removal of the invasive trees continues, and for the Republic of Cyprus to crack down on black market restaurants which serve songbirds.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “This report sadly highlights that the British base is the number one bird killing hotspot on the whole island of Cyprus.
“Many much loved garden bird species are being trapped and killed for huge profit by criminal gangs.
“The trappers’ brazen prevention of the removal of their criminal infrastructure from MoD land could never be tolerated here in the UK.
“The UK Government must therefore provide enforcement support to help the Base authorities respond to the trappers and safely remove the remaining 90 acres of acacia so that they cannot be used to kill hundreds of thousands more birds.”
It is estimated that more than 1.7 million birds could have been killed within the survey area, which covers both the British base and Cyprus Republic areas, and nearly 2.3 million across the whole of Cyprus due to this extensive bird trapping activity.
Small-scale trapping of songbirds for human consumption in Cyprus was practiced for many centuries, but it has been illegal on the island for more 40 years, after being outlawed in 1974.
Martin Hellicar, Director of BirdLife Cyprus, said: “While our latest findings clearly show that the worst bird killing hotspot in Cyprus remains on MoD land, we cannot ignore the distasteful fact that the restaurants serving trapped birds operate within the Cyprus Republic.
“Enforcement against these law-breaking restaurants has been limited – at best – in recent years, and the Cypriot authorities must change this.
“We need a clamp-down on the illegal market supporting this wildlife crime, something the European Commission has called for, repeatedly.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We’re committed to tackling illegal bird trapping and the RSPB has recognised our increased enforcement activity which has led to a record number of arrests, equipment seizures, prosecutions and fines.
“For the second year running we’ve halted the rising trend in the numbers of birds being killed by poachers and we continue to work with the RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus to implement a long-term strategy to reduce this number.”