My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
All week I have been focusing on how the RSPB is helping to save nature in UK's Overseas Territories including in the Caribbean which is where I am this week. But, mentally I shall return to Europe today to provide an update on our work in Cyprus.
Robin caught in a mist net (image credit: BirdLife Cyprus)
Cyprus hosts some very particular UK Overseas Territories: the two so-called “Sovereign Base Areas” of Dhekelia and Akrotiri, home for some of our outstanding Armed Forces. Yet, describing these areas as ‘Bases’ may conjure up a very misleading picture for they are not surrounded by razor-wire fences, or inaccessible to local civilians. I have never visited the island, but I know from colleagues that the Bases actually include some Cyprus villages and the practice is to try to make the presence of British Territory as invisible as possible: there are no signs or flags or any indications given when you drive into or out of one of these areas.
They are also unique amongst the Overseas Territories as it is the Ministry of Defence (MoD) rather than the Foreign Office which has departmental responsibility for them. They contain some of Cyprus’ most spectacular habitats, from the vast flamingo-filled salt lake at Akrotiri, to undeveloped rocky shores where rich Mediterranean coastline habitats still grow in profusion, spared the concrete of hotel development which has covered so much of this habitat elsewhere.
These Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas, however, harbour a dark and incongruous secret: every year, illegal bird-trapping kills hundreds of thousands of migrant songbirds. This is organised, illegal crime on a British Territory, using rows of mist-nets strung between planted Australian acacia trees. I highlighted this issue in my blog here after the RSPB and our local partner, BirdLife Cyprus, jointly published our report on the illegal bird-killing which took place last autumn: an estimated 800,000 birds were killed on the Dhekelia Base alone last autumn. The video still shocks as to the depravity of the executions (though it makes unedifying viewing every time) – see video footage again here. The report findings were picked up by newspapers and radio and it is clearly a story which outrages and shocks many of you. One supporter, Harriet Allen, wrote to me as to how she had heard the Jeremy Vine Show discussion with Chris Packham on the issue and felt compelled to do something. Seeing to her surprise that there wasn’t a UK Government petition challenging the MoD on this issue, she set one up on the spot on behalf of herself and her three young children: you can support the whole family and help show that enough people care, by signing their petition here.
In the meantime our local partner, BirdLife Cyprus, met with the Base Authorities last week to discuss solutions to the issue further. There is a new Base Commander in charge, who affirmed his strong commitment to tackling this issue and asked if he could join BirdLife Cyprus on the ground in the worst trapping black-spot to talk through the detail and get a first-hand understanding. The Bases have now also started to develop a new 3-year strategy to deal with illegal bird-killing. We look forward to working with them on a deliverable plan to remove the avenues of planted acacia which create the support for mist netting that enables this slaughter to happen on such an industrial scale on the military firing range. This is an issue which the RSPB will keep going until the problem is solved, and I will update further later in the year as our work progresses.
This is awful the the trapping by 'accident' of birds should be outlawed if there is no need for this horrible netting why is it still there!! Surely it cannot be so difficult to cut it down and if it is used for a certain purpose find a more sensible and less destructive way of doing so.
Following a report from the RSPB three years ago on this very subject I wrote to my MP who in turn wrote to the Ministry of Defence. I still have that letter from the Rt Hon Mark Francois who wittered on about the widespread problem not just on the SBA's and what they were doing to tackle the problem and that they were examining the scope to remove a significant proportion of the acacia trees. Well from what you and Chris Packham have reported very little would appear to have changed. So another letter will be winging it's way (along with a copy of my earlier MOD reply) to see what they say this time. I've spent a lot of time in Cyprus over the last 30 years and my answer would be to give the squaddies some proper work for a change. There are enough of them and it would send out a clear message that the "British" will not tolerate this and hopefully shame the Cypriot authorities to follow suit. Not a chance!
Redkite is absolutely correct to highlight the criminal nature of the trade in birds. The trapping and selling is controlled by criminal gangs (as I understand it). There is little effort by the Cypriot government to control the restaurants selling the bird dishes despite it being illegal to do so - so the demand is there, and the gangs step in.
I have holidayed in Cyprus - & visited the salt lake with flamingos - a magnificent site. But as Martin says, you wouldnt know you were in any sort of MOD military base - you just drive around as normal. There are houses, Cypriot people, shops etc.
One part of the answer is to remove the acacia trees - but previous messages have indicated that the MOD have been unable to continue with this work - because of intimidation by the gangs. Maybe it is time for the appropriate troops to be brought in - possibly the engineers, to do the tree removal - but I expect they would need other troops to protect them whilst at work.
But perhaps most of all there needs to be high level diplomatic talks aimed at getting the Cypriot Government to play its part - I know this has been tried before - but efforts really need to be racked up if there is to be any chance of stopping this vile and barbaric activity and trade.
Great blog Martin and good luck to Harriet with the petition, and thanks for explaining about how open the bases are I for one didn't realise that.
Bring us all a stick of rock back from the Caribbean.
Well done RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus. It is so important ant to get this very very nasty practice stamped out once and for all, as Cyprus is an important migrant staging point for migrating birds in the Eastern Meditterranian. I think the authorities need to recognise too that the criminals that are involved in this illegal killing of birds are often those involved in other forms of illegal activities not necessarily related to birds.
In stamping out these horrible practices it perhaps needs to be anticipated that when these crimnals are prevented from killing birds on the U.K. Soveriegn Bases that they do not start up their illegal activities else where. That may not be so easy.