More than 600,000 birds were snared illegally last year to supply restaurants and for home consumption
An estimated 605,000 birds, including robins, thrushes and blackcaps, were caught in mist nets in September and October, after fines for shooting were reduced, a report reveals.
The birds, popular in much of Europe, are seen in Cyprus as a “delicacy” and every autumn hundreds of thousands are trapped during their migration from Europe to Africa and sold to restaurants or for home consumption.
As a result, criminal gangs profiting from the thriving trade have waged a vicious war on police and conservation groups defending the wildlife.
The authorities and volunteers have faced increasing attacks, including last month a bomb on a car used by members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (Cabs) charity. Nobody was hurt, but the group said it was the latest in a string of violent attacks and death threats.
The charity said that on Christmas Eve, “an aggressive poacher manhandled and threatened a police officer who accompanied Cabs volunteers to an illegal trapping site in Zygi.
“The trapping site was equipped with six huge nets and a tape lure. Six song thrushes and a barn owl were caught in the net, with 23 more dead in a bucket, freshly killed by the trapper.”
BirdLife Cyprus says last autumn’s 605,000 songbirds were trapped and killed in fine “mist” nets and on glue-coated sticks in four miles surveyed during the two-month peak trapping season last year.
In 2019 around 418,000 migrating birds were caught, but in autumn 2020 the figure dropped to 294,000 after crackdown efforts.
It’s believed trappers were emboldened when in December that year the Cyprus government reduced on-the-spot fines from €2,000 per bird to €200 for illegal shooting and using limesticks – sticks covered in glue that cause birds an agonising death.
Last year’s huge increase brings the toll closer to the peak of 2016, when 880,000 were trapped.
European bird populations have declined drastically. A study last year found that between 1980 to 2017, up to 19 per cent disappeared, equating to up to 620 million individual birds.
According to BirdLife Cyprus, the gangs, who use electronic calls to lure birds into bushes laced with nets and limesticks, earn tens of thousands of euros every year from the industrial-scale trade to create the delicacy “ambelopoulia”.
European Commission chiefs wrote to the country’s government last October warning that changes in the law would increase illegal trapping.
Cabs volunteers said that the following month, three masked trappers jumped on a member and beat him until he was nearly unconscious and with blood pouring from his head.
Tassos Shialis, of BirdLife Cyprus, said: “The recent law changes are a major setback to all the conservation and anti-trapping work undertaken in Cyprus in the past 20 years.
“The low fines of €200 for up to 50 birds have, in essence, decriminalised the killing of migratory songbirds.
“We hope that the Cyprus government will annul this law change, otherwise the commission will have no other option but to initiate an infringement procedure against Cyprus for its lack of bird protection.”
Three trappers caught by the RSPB on hidden camera are awaiting prosecution.
The Independent has asked the Cypriot embassy in London to respond to the criticism over the fines.