All posts by Georgia Locock

Dangers of a Journey South: the frontline of illegal bird slaughter on Cyprus

This blog post is long overdue. Mainly because it’s been another case of abandoning my blog due to settling into the new world of university life, but I also knew it would be a difficult task to explain and recall the experiences from when I visited Cyprus back in September to learn more about and make some short films on the illegal slaughter of migratory birds that pass over the island. It was incredible to experience the frontline of this issue but also very difficult at times.

In the distance, the sweet call of the blackcap was being projected through an MP3 decoy. It was 3am and five of us were trudging over a ploughed field in the direction of the tape lure and as we approached a shrubby area, the noise got louder and louder. We were in an area known for bird trapping.

The island of low trees and shrubs within an area of open fields, where the traps were set, was around 200 metres from a house. We couldn’t afford to make any unnecessary noise. As one of us went to stand-by in case the trapper came back, we all began looking for limesticks. Speed and efficiency was everything.

This was my first time out in the field since arriving on Cyprus. Most British tourists visit for its hot climate, beaches and nights out. Instead, I was holding a Lesser Whitethroat smothered in the paste of a limestick. Its head was wrapped around the stick, with its beak embedded. It was pitch black, we couldn’t use torches as we’d attract too much attention. Instead, we carefully shone a dim light to work out what state the bird was in and where to start in an attempt to release it. Submerged, it seemed there was little chance. The bird had seemingly been stuck for a long time, but it persisted with the odd twitch. Like a snare, the more it tried to escape and pull itself away, the more it entangled itself. Its delicate legs were clotted. After a careful extraction, we had removed the bird but it was barely moving. It had been there too long, although the bird was free, its legs were still cemented in the evil substance on the stick. I can’t think of a more brutal way for a bird to die.

Two of the birds rescued on that night were taken back to be cleaned and released. Those doing this work and on the frontline in Cyprus are the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS). Volunteers from CABS spend tireless amount of time rescuing birds from trapping sites and fighting against illegal bird slaughter not just in Cyprus but across Europe.

That night we collected around 150 limesticks. The limesticks are made using a small stick, about the right size to place in a bush, then covered in an incredibly strong and sticky substance which acts as a glue to trap birds when they land on the stick. Trappers will place multiple sticks within an area alongside an MP3 player as a decoy, which usually plays the song of Blackcaps. Such calls attract birds to the area, where they then find themselves surrounded by limesticks. Once stuck, they wait until they’re released by the trapper the next morning.

This illegal trapping then continues when the birds are sold onto restaurants where they’re sold for large amounts of money to be eaten by Cypriots as a traditional, but illegal, ‘delicacy’ known as ‘Ambelopoulia’. This black-market trade has been illegal for over 40 years, yet it continues as many Cypriots still believe the practice to be traditional and it is big business for some trappers. Back in 2016, on British Military Base in Cyprus, it was estimated that 800,000 birds were killed during the autumn using limesticks and mist nets.

On another evening, just myself and a CABS volunteer were investigating the sound of a distant decoy. The mix of emotions was bizarre: it was exciting to find a trapping site and taking immediate action, along with being a part of a CABS mission. But it was also terrifying. We were darting across an open landscape of ploughed fields between shrubs at 2am with trappers nearby. It has become a dangerous job for some CABS volunteers, when we were on Cyprus, groups were threatened with knives and at a site just a week before, others were kidnapped and others shot at. Nevertheless, when illegal bird slaughter is taking place, they do anything they can to fight it.

There are two British Military Bases on Cyprus, these are Akrotiri and Dhekelia. Along with spending time in the Republic, we spent most of our time on Dhekelia, which has been renowned for many years for the extensive illegal hunting which takes place here. This has created a lot of pressure on the British sovereignty as they are responsible for the crime taking place and up until recently, they were accused of doing very little about the situation. As I have already stated, in the autumn of 2016, 800,000 birds were illegally slaughtered on British land.

However, change is being seen. CABS stated that just compared to 2016, there had been a decrease in the amount of trapping sites that they were finding each night. This was both in the Republic and on British Military Base. Speaking to the police, their attitude has also changed. They seemed keen to reduce and rule-out illegal bird trapping on their land, and this has been made obvious by clear results so far and methods they are evidently putting into place. For example, the use of drones with cameras to deter and gather evidence to prosecute trappers and removal of acacia trees and irrigation pipes.

Further change needs to be happening in the Republic though. Political will is needed. More prosecutions are needed, especially prosecutions against those restaurants who are selling Ambelopoulia.

It is widely believed that to thaw this tradition out, educational action is key. We went to visit Birdlife Cyprus who are acting in schools with educational programs and approaches to children. They have done this through numerous ways, from lesson plans to board games where children can learn about the birds they see. It is all with the intention of teaching and helping them to appreciate the bird life they see and respect this rather than believe that tradition is more important. Unfortunately, still, it is a difficult task as the trapping is very much traditional and passed down through generations. Nevertheless, it was amazing to see the work that Birdlife Cyprus are doing and to hear from their experiences. After a few bleak days of being on the front line of this horrendous slaughter in Cyprus, to learn and hear about this sort of progress was amazing.

Not only do Birdlife Cyprus do educational work, they are also active on the front line and in the field when it comes to stopping the slaughter of migratory birds in Cyprus. In 2002, along with the RSPB, Birdlife Cyprus set up a Surveillance Programme. This has enabled them to gain long-term records of field data, from which reliable trends have been gathered and an overview of the bird trapping situation in Cyprus.

Although there is a lot of bleakness in all of this, change is happening. The police on British land are taking action, CABS are going strong and education is being taken seriously. Along with those British tourists attracted to its beaches and hot weather, Cyprus also attracts many birders. Whilst on Cyprus, I did get the chance to see some exciting species. It was very odd to think how brilliant it was to see some species, then compare it to the state I’d seen others when attached to limesticks. Especially after CABS volunteers rescued an adult male Masked Shrike. I’d dreamt of seeing one for a long time, but this one was looking back at me from within a bathtub after having its feathers unmated from the sticky glue of a limestick. The mixture of shear excitement and anger was a strange combination.

Whilst on Cyprus, I created three short films that are aimed at younger audiences in the UK to explain to them about the situation. Others that I went with were Chris Packham, Megan McCubbin and Ruth Peacey, below are the links to the films that we made along with other information about the situation in Cyprus.

Georgia on Cyprus: Dangers of a Journey South

Episode 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI5s1V3EPYo

Episode 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDK8D3Nze3c

Episode 3 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs1pL7b1njM

Megan McCubbin: Stuck on Cyprus

Episode 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hSEur0TxWI

Episode 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ww5ZMQGlOkc

Cyprus: Massacre on Migration 2017 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9gWjbfwFtk

Birdlife Cyprus – https://birdlifecyprus.org/

Committee Against Bird Slaughter – http://www.komitee.de/en/homepage

The Swift total

Some of you will remember that last summer, in July, I walked the North West Way. In 11 days, I trekked 191 miles from Preston to Carlisle. I started by walking along the Ribble Way, then the Yorkshire Dales and Pennine Way, onto the Pennines and finished along the Hadrian’s Wall path in Carlisle. I really enjoyed doing the walk, it was tough at times but, looking back, I had some amazing experiences and I can’t wait to do something similar again.

Equally as satisfying was that I raised £3000 for my cause, this is the work that the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) are doing to monitor the decline of the Swift. Between 1995-2014, 47% of breeding numbers have declined here in the UK and no one is really sure why. It could be due to the decline in the abundance of invertebrates that are available to them during the breeding season. But little is known about their foraging behaviour during the breeding season. Or it could be something that is happening to them elsewhere in the world and on migration. Or quite possibly, both of these reasons.

To find out more, this is why miniature GPS tags are being deployed onto swifts at breeding colonies. The BTO will be able to track swifts both on their foraging flights during the breeding season and over their annual migration. As each tag will be able to record around 300 locations per deployment, this will allow the BTO to quantify the amount of time spent over different habitats and the distances travelled from the colony through short-term deployments during the breeding season.

The money raised will go towards supporting the BTO with ensuring that these tags are safe enough to be deployed on Swifts and gather data to help them learn more about the challenges they face.

Although I’d posted a few blogs about the walk, I realised that I hadn’t published the total amount, and thought it was only right to do a short blog with the total as many kindly and generously donated and supported me along the way. My original target was £500 but I totally smashed this and raised £2965 through my online JustGiving page plus £40 offline, which added up to £3005.

I couldn’t be any more ecstatic about this. Since the walk, I also did a podcast with Charlie Moores from Lush, where I spoke about the walk, the link for this is here. I was also kindly invited by the BTO to attend their annual conference back in December, free of charge as a ‘thank you’ for my fundraising. This was my first BTO conference, which was very exciting and interesting due to the wide array of talks and presentations.

Final total – £3005!

The effects of people power at its best

Some very positive news was shared across social media yesterday evening. Bradford Council had voted not to renew the grouse shooting lease on Ilkley Moor. The press release on the Ban Bloodsports on Ilkley Moor website stated that an overwhelming majority of councillors voted against, with 61 out of 89 councillors doing so. Bradford Council consists mainly of the Labour Party, who all voted against, along with ten Liberal Democrats and 3 Green Party Councillors. Bradford Council is the last local authority in the UK to stop grouse shooting on public land. Before this was the Peak District National Park Authority.

Since its formation in May 2014, Ban Bloodsports on Ilkley Moor has lobbied the council. During a recent consultation on further management of Ilkley Moor, this was the largest submission to the local authority on any single topic. The group, consisting of passionate individuals who have campaigned against the management and effects of grouse shooting on the moor, range from all ages and backgrounds.  It was always amazing to hear updates about the work they were doing, which was published on their website and on social media. Yesterday’s success is brilliant and just shows the impact a grassroots group can have. It’s a wonderful example and a definite step in the right direction, hopefully an icebreaker for similar situations.

This is a clear example of how people power has been successful and something that should be celebrated. A similar example of the effects of people power, but on a larger scale, was last week when Theresa May made a U-turn on her manifesto promise for a vote to repeal the Hunting Act 2004.

During the General Election campaign last year, Theresa May made it publicly known that, although she’d never been fox hunting, she was in favour of it. And as part of her manifesto, she promised a vote to repeal the Hunting Act. Similar to the vote that David Cameron promised during his term that never actually materialised.

However, in an interview last week on the Andrew Marr show, the Prime Minister backed down on her promise. She stated that although her personal views on fox hunting had not changed, there was a ‘clear message’ from the public that a vote would not be popular. Therefore, she stated that a vote won’t take place before the next General Election in 2022. Recent polling clearly states that 85% of the public are against a repeal and during her General Election campaign, polls suggested that her promise of a vote played unpopular with voters.

Campaigns against the repeal of the Hunting Act have always been very active and widespread. Those campaigning against the Conservative Party during the General Election on animal welfare issues made this fox hunting stance known to the public. The issue appears a lot in the media and there are various campaign groups that persistently pressure the government.

The Tories u-turn on this issue is another example of people power. They have u-turned on a key manifesto pledge that would have swayed some of their rural voters and those that campaigned for the party, for example the Countryside Alliance. However, is this really people power or just another attempt of the Conservatives to scrub up their reputation on animal rights. In the past, they know the pledge has lost them popularity and votes, so is this just another stunt to claw back voters?

Irregardless, if she keeps her promise then this is obviously good news. This links to my last blog with comments on the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which similarly seemed like another way for the Conservatives to improve their reputation on environmental issues. Although these actions are a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough for some species. If they really are interested in the welfare and cruelty of foxes, further steps would be to tackle the illegal hunting that still takes place under the cover of ‘trail hunting’.

The 25 Year Environment Plan: A picture with no detail

Over the last few months I haven’t had many chances to write any blogs due to settling into the new world of university life. This has been quite infuriating, especially as I’ve felt I’ve not been doing enough of what I’m passionate about. One thing I missed sharing was a very interesting experience that I had back in November. For the first time ever, a special advisor for the environment has been appointed to the Prime Minister. This position has been taken by ex-Conservative Deputy Chief Whip and known birder, Sir John Randall. At the end of November, he invited myself and three other young conservationists including Josie Hewitt and Findlay Wilde, for a meeting and a bit of a chat about our concerns regarding the environment and what we’re passionate about when it comes to conservation.

It was an intriguing afternoon and I indulged in the opportunity, as did the others, to express my concerns with someone who could make a difference. Topics we spoke about included Hen Harrier and Driven Grouse Shooting, our concerns over environmental policy with Brexit, the Badger Cull, environmental education for children in and out of schools and the way that the government lack in expressing their interest in preserving the natural environment. I said what I wanted to and felt as though I had been listened to, the meeting felt successful. I also got the opportunity to discuss illegal bird trapping on British military base in Cyprus, following my visit there last September. Sir John explained plans of actions from the government and made notes, he was interested to hear what we had to say. In addition, it was interesting that the position of a special advisor for the environment has been appointed.

A month later and it appeared something had been stirred when chief Political Correspondent for The Telegraph reported on the meeting between myself, Findlay and Josie with Sir John at Number 10. The article focused on concerns from pro-hunting and shooting MP’s following Sir John’s comments about his stance on firearm licence’s, pheasant shooting and grouse moor management which have been published on Findlay’s blog. Christopher Hope (the Political Correspondent) stated that “Pro-field sports MPs are privately appalled by the comments” and “One Conservative MP said it was “quite extraordinary” that ministers were “promoting removal of licences beyond the already wide powers the police have to remove licences”.

The article can be found here – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/29/exclusive-theresa-mays-new-10-downing-street-environmental-adviser/

Yesterday morning the long awaited 25 Year Environment Plan was launched by the Conservatives. We spoke about this during our meeting with Sir John when we visited Number 10. The 25 Year Plan is a long-term strategy that is designed to reverse long term declines in ecosystems and preserve the environment for future generations. For a few hours yesterday morning, I caught up with Theresa May’s speech and had a read of the document.

My first reaction was that a large chunk of the plan and Theresa May’s speech focuses on reducing plastic waste and pollution. The amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans is undeniably shocking and has terrible consequences, but it seems that they have jumped on the Blue Planet wagon. They are aware of the popularity of disgust from what was highlighted on Blue Planet and it seems they are trying their hardest to appeal to the younger voter and the wider public who they know the issue is very popular with at the moment. She played a similar act last week when she announced her new stance not to attempt to repeal the Hunting Act due to public pressure.

Something else mentioned in the plan is a promise to engage more children with nature in and out of schools, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is something that I am very passionate about. The government has stated that they will do this through extra funding, but the amount they propose doesn’t come close to what has already been cut from this area in the past. The document also discusses development of habitat through a ‘Nature Recovery Network’ and made bold statements about preserving the countryside, such as “long-term approach to protecting and enhancing them in England for the next generation”. However, there was no mention of HS2 which plans to do just the opposite.

Despite other mentions and word choices including ‘hen harriers’ and ‘curlews’, there was nothing about wildlife crime in the UK or Driven Grouse Shooting. Unsurprising. Also lacking, was anything to do with the badger cull, fox hunting or animal welfare and cruelty. Furthermore, after comments about reducing pollution and their commitment to climate change, Fracking is still supported by the government. The plan is all very pretty at first glance and the big picture that’s been painted seems very promising, but with no mention of detail or hard legislation, it is all very underwhelming.

During our meeting at Number 10, one of the concerns that we expressed was about the way that the government publicly presents the environment as something that is unimportant and of no concern. Today’s announcements and plans have created a lot of attention, but for how long is this going to last before it all dies down and little happens. In an attempt to appeal to younger voters and give into public pressure, the Conservatives have painted a nice picture with their ideas but there is no hard commitment or legislation that suggests that they’re going to deliver. There is also a lot missing, it is once again proven that they are not in touch with the immediate needs of our natural environment. Little has been given to the protection of natural areas, wildlife and those species who can’t afford a long-term strategy. Immediate action is needed to ensure that they are there to be enjoyed by future generations.