When Britain’s armed forces minister, Mark Lancaster, assumed office he was surprised by the amount of letters in his mailbag regarding an issue the military would not ordinarily address.

One after the other spoke of the killing of migratory songbirds on Cyprus.

Hundreds of thousands of robins, blackcaps, thrushes and other much-loved garden species were being illegally slaughtered by trappers on Ministry of Defence land. Was there nothing he could do?

Song thrush

Lancaster, who served in Cyprus during a gap year commission in the army in 1987, resolved to right the wrong. He made good on the promise last weekend.

Under a baking sun, on the easternmost edge of the British sovereign base area of Dhekelia, Lancaster witnessed the weapons being deployed in the battle to curb a practice blamed for the death of more than 800,000 birds on the military facility in 2016 alone.

There was a 72% drop in the illegal killing of birds in the area over the last year, which Lancaster, who continues to serve in the army reserves as a colonel, said “demonstrates the wider utility of defence above and beyond military action”.

Poaching was once a cottage industry, the result of a traditional fondness for the island delicacy ambelopoulia. But it has expanded into industrial-scale organised crime, and the black market culinary industry is now worth millions of pounds. Birds are subjected to agonising deaths on glue-coated sticks or in fine mist nets that trappers deploy.

Sticky trap

Bee eater caught in sticky trap - credit http://www.komitee.de/en/projects/cyprus 

No other place in Cyprus is targeted as much by poachers as the British base area. The historic lack of development has not only turned the territory into an area of outstanding natural beauty but one of special conservation, home to unique habitats and species.

Migratory birds en route from Africa to Europe instinctively head towards Cape Pyla as they navigate around the bright lights of Larnaka and the resort of Ayia Napa.

From August to October, base authorities have their work cut out for them. The war has become increasingly high-tech. In the last year, thermal-imaging drones, night-vision goggles and hidden cameras have been deployed by police on the base, who are also equipped with stun guns.

The equivalent of 45 football pitches of purposely planted fast-growing acacia trees, used to conceal nets and capture birds, have been destroyed. Just under 45 miles (70km) of illegal water pipes, employed to irrigate the non-native trees, were removed last year.

In theory, the Cypriot government prohibits the illegal trade. But the delicacy is readily available, albeit behind the counter and usually camouflaged by lettuce leaves, in villages across the island.

Some island officials have openly bragged that the industry helped pay their children’s education fees in Britain and beyond.

“To beat the target we have already achieved is going to be tough,” said Michalis Zacharia, the police officer in charge of the bird crime team. “We are going to have to come face to face with criminal elements and you never know how they will react"

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