Ambelopoulia is a controversial dish of pickled or grilled songbirds served in some Cypriot restaurants. It’s preparation involves trapping wild birds such as Blackcaps and European Robins, using indiscriminate methods that result in a significant by-catch of up to 100 different species, some rare or threatened. It has technically been illegal in Cyprus for more than 30 years, but the only enforcement of the relevant laws took place between 2000 and 2002 in a political bid to join the European Union. Since joining the EU, the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC) has applied, although it too has not been enforced
The birds are driven towards the lime-sticks and nets in the early morning by the trappers shouting and throwing stones into the bushes to flush the birds out. A newer, and even more lethal method, involves the use of tape-recorded birdsong to attract the migrants to their deaths. The use of such recordings is illegal, but is becoming increasingly widespread.
The trapped birds are usually killed, the exception being any particularly exotic species which might be retained alive for the caged bird trade. Unwanted species are simply killed and discarded, the remainder are killed and sold as ambellopoulia, a high-priced delicacy on the island. The birds are pickled or grilled, and sold in tavernas. A diner will typically eat his way through a dozen or more ambelopoulia. The serving of these birds is illegal, but the law is not ignored by restaurants and law enforcement alike. The price for a plate of ambelopoulia in 2007 is €40.
Most trapping takes place in the South, and especially the Southeast, of the island during the Autumn migration, although the trappers are also out during the Spring migration, when their cull is especially harmful since it occurs before the birds have had a chance to breed. Some trapping also takes place in the mountains. The most notorious regions are, paradoxically, also the most popular tourist areas: from Paralimni and Protaras on the east coast, to Ayia Napa on the south. Here, few migrants survive the trapping: the nets and lime-sticks are everywhere, including within the Cape Greco National Park, along nature trails, and even in the grounds of hotels.Limesticks and Mist-nets
Lime-sticks are twigs, about a meter long, which are covered in an extremely sticky ‘glue’ made by boiling up the fruit of the Syrian plum-tree. These sticks are placed in bushes, or sometimes inserted into the ends of bamboo poles, to provide very inviting perches for birds. Any bird landing on a lime-stick becomes stuck, falls upside down, and as it flutters to free itself it becomes progressively more attached to the stick. The birds do not usually die quickly: this is a long, lingering death, which may only occur when the trapper arrives to cut their throats or crush their heads.
The manufacture, sale, ownership, and use of lime-sticks is illegal, but the law has been very widely flouted: bunches of lime-sticks have, until this year, been openly on sale, even in tourist-frequented markets, and their use is very widespread. The use of lime-sticks for bird-trapping goes back for centuries, and in the past was a means by which poor people supplemented a meager diet. That is no longer the case: Cyprus now has an extremely high standard of living, and most liming is done for (tax-free) profit.
Mist-nets are very fine filament nets, up to ten meters high which can be strung end-to-end to make invisible ‘walls of death’ for the birds. These nets may be stretched across water-courses, or between trees and bushes (which are often planted and irrigated solely for the purpose of attracting birds for trapping). The importation of mist-nets into Cyprus is illegal, but thousands are smuggled into the country and acquired by the trappers. They cost about Cy£80 (about US$120) each, an indication of how profitable their use is. Unlike the use of lime-sticks, netting in Cyprus is not traditional.
The geographical position of the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean gives it special importance as a place for millions of migrant birds moving between Africa, Europe and western Asia to rest and refuel for their long journeys each year. During the northward migration in Spring, and the southward movement in the Autumn, huge numbers of birds of almost 300 different species use Cyprus as a stepping-stone during their flights across the Mediterranean. Because of the landscape of the island, the migrants tend to ‘funnel’ into certain areas, making them extremely vulnerable to human interference.
The result of insufficient official monitoring in the past was that by the year 2000 trapping had spiraled out of control. It is estimated that over 15 million birds are killed in Cyprus each year, of which those legally hunted are only a small proportion. Estimates that 75% of all migrants birds landing in the worst affected areas are caught and killed may be an under-calculation: observers in those areas state that it is rare to see any bird alive except those caught in nets or on lime-sticks.
Public Perception of Bird Trapping in Cyprus
According to a recent poll commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or BirdLife in the UK, 88 percent of Cypriots surveyed say they disapprove of the illegal trapping of migrating songbirds. Still, half those polled had tried ambelopoulia, and 14 percent of those surveyed said it was their favorite bird dish. This translates to between 10,000 and 15,000 Cypriots who claim to eat ambelopoulia regularly.
Estimates of the Slaughter
In the Southeast of the island in particular, around the towns of Paralimni and Agia Napa, prepared installations for lime sticks can be found in some 80 % of all private gardens and orchards. In Spring about a quarter of these installations are active, more in the Autumn.
According to one conservative estimate, some 15,000 to 20,000 lime sticks are set out on the South coast of Cyprus in spring. In the Paralimni/Agia Napa area alone, the number of lime sticks probably amount to some 5,000 to 10,000. In autumn these numbers are at least four times higher and therefore probably total some 100,000! Installations of limesticks ranged from the size of a small garden to 3 hectares (7. 5 acres) in one recent (Spring 2009) survey. In the same survey, out of approx. 2100 limesticks, 143 birds were found, 25 of which were already dead. Some 45 % of all trapped birds were the targeted Blackcaps; other species included in particular Spectacled Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Pied, Collared and Spotted Flycatcher, as well as Sedge Warbler, Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove, Bee-eater, Wryneck and a single Tawny Owl. (Source)
The trappers themselves publicly admitted (as reported on 11 September 2002 on the front page of Phileleftheros, the highest circulation Greek language newspaper in Cyprus) that due to the crack-down in 2002 they were losing 300-500 Cyprus pounds per day from the sale of ambelopoulia (the trapped birds sold as a gastronomic delicacy). As trappers earn about one pound per bird trapped and the autumn trapping season lasts some 60 days, at least 18,000 birds are being caught per trapper per autumn. So how many trappers are there? The Cyprus Weekly of 27 Sept to 3 Oct reported that the trappers had surrendered 8000 ballot books in protest at the clamp-down on their activities. Thus, even if the average catch per trapper is only, say, 3000 birds, and if we take 8000 as the total number trappers (when, in fact, not all trappers are likely to have handed in their ballot books) some 24 million birds may be trapped each autumn. And this total does not include the non-commercial species that are trapped in the nets and discarded. (Source)
Action You Can Take
The massacre must be stopped. The trapping is completely indiscriminate and many of the birds taken are from species which are already endangered or in decline, and certainly include species which are a popular and cherished part of the natural heritage in other parts of Europe. In many European countries much is being done to protect these species, but these efforts are rendered useless if birds are massacred on reaching Cyprus.
While action may be taken by the EU, the greatest need for action is from Cypriots themselves. If you live in Cyprus, you can write a letter to the editor to one of the major newspapers, or join BirdLife Cyprus.
You can also leave a comment below in support (please, for discussions, see the regular blog posts).