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    Cypriot harvest threatens birds

    NewsBird NewsFriday 25 November 2011
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    Cyprus

    Every year millions of birds are trapped on the shores of Cyprus for the banned ‘delicacy’ ambelopoulia. LIAM CREEDON explores how this hidden disaster is threatening some of our best-loved garden species
    Less well known than shark-fin soup or foie gras, the ‘delicacy’ ambelopoulia may lay claim to being the world’s most macabre dish.
     
    The numbers involved in its deadly preparation certainly suggest so. One bird is trapped and killed every four seconds — about two-and-a-half million are illegally slaughtered every year.
     
    The logistics of gathering this grisly harvest prove equally alarming.
    Live birds stuck-fast on glue-smeared branches are ripped unceremoniously clear — their legs left behind like twisted pins.
     
    Other victims, snared in hidden nets, are dispatched with the quick jerk of a toothpick to tiny throats.
    Ambelopoulia — this mouthful of a word refers to the songbirds blackcaps, robins and whitethroats, which form the key ingredient of this most unpalatable dish.
     
    Once caught, the birds are plucked and then pickled or grilled. Morsels so small that etiquette dictates they are swallowed whole, thereby avoiding the awkward crunch of tiny bones.
     
    The trappers’ key targets are the birds migrating to Cyprus, primarily in the autumn.
    And more disturbing still, much of this slaughter takes place on parts of the island under the control of the British Government — on the UK’s British Sovereign Base Areas (SBA).
     
    They catch the birds in one of two ways. The first method relies on stealth. Impossible-to-see nets, known as mist nets, are strung between trees. Electronic bird calls lure the birds in, to become hopelessly entangled in the twine.
     
    Even more sinister is the glue stick or limestick method. A gluey secretion is daubed upon branches, trapping any bird that perches unsuspectingly upon them.
     
    Declared illegal in 1974, ambelopoulia is still a sought after dish on the island, driving a multi-million-euro industry.
     
    Trappers are paid about four euro per bird and a serving of the dish can fetch anything up to 80 euro.
    Despite conservationists’ best efforts, locals and restaurateurs do not seem overly keen to let this easy revenue stream disappear. And, like Cyprus, we have our own relatively recent tradition of eating songbirds; sparrows were harvested in rural parts of the UK well into the 1940s.
     
    So, apart from being cruel, is there any real harm in munching on a few robins? Well, yes, and massively so.
    Martin Hellicar from BirdLife Cyprus, the RSPB’s partner on the island, explains that far from being just a barbaric custom, illegal trapping for ambelopoulia is also an ecological disaster.
     
    “Our main concerns are the scale of the killing — hundreds of thousands of birds every year and also the non-selective nature of limesticks and mist nets,” he says. “This means more than 120 different species are caught, with more than 50 of these threatened species — things such as spotted flycatchers, collared flycatchers, nightjars, red-footed falcons, bee-eaters, hoopoes, wrynecks, red-backed shrikes, the list goes on.”
     
    But the death toll is not just limited to exotic species. Many of our cherished garden birds end up plucked, grilled and plated up. Cyprus is a key overwintering site and our robins and thrushes heading to the trapping hotspots of Famagusta, Larnaca and the SBA of Dhe kelia face an uncertain future.
     
    Ambelopoulia is widely seen as an “innocent tradition” and ongoing publicity campaigns to stop the practice have fallen on deaf ears.
     
    The Ministry of Defence has said that efforts are being made to tackle illegal trapping on SBAs, but BirdLife Cyprus wants the British Government to do a lot more.
     

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