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 across the northern hemisphere, the southward autumn migration of birds is now in full swing. This migration is undeniably perilous, with a host of natural and now increasingly human-induced factors all taking their toll on the many millions of migrants that undertake these journeys out of necessity to find safe wintering grounds.
On one part of UK territory, the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area (SBA) of Cyprus, this migration heralds the start of the autumn killing season. I wrote on this issue in April highlighting the scale of the bird trapping issues, and again in May, after my visit to Cyprus, when I witnessed first-hand the acacia groves where this killing is, once again, taking place. I want to give you a brief update as to what has been happening over the summer, and, at the end, suggest what you can do.
Juvenile red-backed shrike on lime stick. Image credit: Birdlife Cyprus
Last week, the memory of these acacia groves was thrust back at me, as I watched two videos taken by our Investigations team in 2016 relating to two recent convictions of another five bird trappers. Not for the squeamish here and here but this is just so utterly wrong. And it is of course illegal. This is the tragedy of Dhekelia.
These videos were the result of the excellent work jointly undertaken by the RSPB Investigations unit and SBA police last autumn. It has been in no small part because of this evidence that convictions against 14 trappers in six operations have been secured by the British authorities over the last few months (with one final case of five defendants still to come). Faced with such damning footage, it is little wonder that the trappers have been entering guilty pleas. Moreover, the sentences that are being handed out reflect the seriousness of the court in Cyprus. We hope that this may all finally begin to act as a real deterrent: fines have been imposed of up to Euro 2500 per person, while six month prison sentences suspended for up to three years dramatically raise the risks for any of the trappers who are caught again.
In contrast, however, in the Republic of Cyprus itself, the relaxation of the hunting laws at the end of June – in direct contravention of the EU Birds Directive – suggests less respect for the environment and legal obligations. This relaxation effectively decriminalises the use of lime sticks to catch birds (a particularly barbaric technique) while making enforcement against restaurants that serve pickled songbirds (‘ambelopoulia’) virtually impossible. We continue to support our local partner, Birdlife Cyprus, in any way that we can to help reduce the crucial demand side of this problem.
The UK’s direct responsibility is, of course, more in terms of the supply rather than the demand. In this respect, we applaud the two operations carried out by the SBA authorities over the summer to disrupt the irrigation infrastructure used to water the acacia groves. A measure of the importance of the acacias can be seen in the videos (linked above): they provide both the support for the trapping nets and cover for the trappers themselves, but also act to bring in concentrations of songbirds which otherwise would be safely on their way. This underlines the fact that the end goal must remain the total removal of all these acacia groves by the SBA authorities.
We still care deeply about this issue and I remain appalled that the killing continues. As the season unfolds, I will seek to keep you updated. If you would like to support the work to combat this killing in Dhekelia directly, please consider writing to your MP, asking them to encourage the MoD to persist with this very positive work until the acacia is all removed.
This is very very distressing to see birds in this state. It must be very tough for those persons who strive to stop these appalling killing practices. My admiration goes out to all those trying prevent the slaughter. My utter contempt goes out to all those who perpetrate such slaughter incncluding the politicians who support it despite its total illegality.
We are indeed going through a very rough passage with a surfeit of very low grade politicians world wide at present. There are a few, but not many, notable exceptions though.
However as Churchill said" never, never give in" and I know the RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus will not. The darkest hour is just before dawn and you never know what might turn up unexpectedly.
I shall be writing to my MP as requested.
I'm just back from north-east Greece where we saw healthy numbers of red-backed shrikes. It's sickening to imagine what could be waiting for them on the other side of the Mediterranean.