Written in response to stories in the press questioning falling migrant bird numbers. Many blame this on farming practices and climate change but I have a different view (22nd April 2013)

The RSPB included the article in their ‘RSPB Daily’ (12th May 2013) http://paper.li/Natures_Voice/1294591314

For two winters I’ve had an unusual visitor to my bird-table – one bossy Blackcap. Watching him terrorise the more-usual winter fare of Sparrows, Tits and Dunnocks got me thinking; why on earth would this little warbler prefer to shiver in a Dorset garden than join his fellow Blackcaps wintering in the warmth of North Africa? Surely he must be quite mad? Then, someone sent me a link to a disturbing video that transformed my thinking of the little bully; maybe he wasn’t so bird-brained after all.

The video from British Forces News, showed distressing images of birds being netted in Cyprus. One species featured heavily – the Blackcap, identical to the bold bird hunkering down in my camellia. Apparently the Blackcap is a favourite of Cypriot bird trappers – a dozen fetch up to €80 to form the illegal and controversial dish, Ambelopoulia, comprising of grilled, pickled or boiled songbirds. As it’s not cost-effective to remove the entrails of the tiny corpse, the consumer is encouraged to swallow the bird whole.

So, while my little Blackcap seems to have turned his back on migrating (to take his chances in our increasingly bitter winters), many of his and other species continue their traditional, arduous and perilous journeys from Africa to Europe simply to raise their young in our all-too-brief but bountiful summers.

But, alongside the many natural dangers – crossing punishing and widening deserts and facing the vagaries of the weather – our brave songsters face a more relentless, organised foe – man – armed with mist-nets and lime-sticks.

These are twigs and branches covered in a kind of ‘glue’ which are then surreptitiously placed in bushes to provide (what appears to be) an inviting perch for a weary migrant. Sadly, any unfortunate bird landing on such a stick is soon hopelessly stuck and any efforts to free itself only sees the struggling bird become more attached to the lime-stick. The bird rarely dies quickly; an end to its plight only comes with the arrival of the trapper who will then snap its neck or crush its head.

And trappers aren’t (as in past days) simply peasant farmers trying to supplement a meagre diet. This cruelty is carried out for profit to satisfy a demand for Ambelopoulia. It is estimated that in 2012 on Cyprus alone, up to 2.5m birds of 150 species were slaughtered by this method. This increasing problem is now big business, run by Mafia-style gangs and is worth over €5m annually.

And Cyprus certainly isn’t alone in its shame. Malta’s ‘holiday isle’ image is also stained with the blood of an estimated 3m bird deaths and, if you add these shocking totals to the millions caught up in the vast mist-nets encountered as they battle their way across North Africa and the Middle-East and the ‘shoot anything that flies’ mentality as they journey through Italy, is it really any wonder that we are seeing such catastrophic declines in our own migrant population?

Once familiar voices that enlivened our spring chorus are silently taking their last bows and disappearing almost unnoticed. The Cuckoo, for centuries known as ‘a herald of spring’, is down in some areas by a shocking 71% and He isn’t alone. The gentle purr of the Turtle Dove (once a sound evocative of a British summer) is rarely heard in most of its past haunts; since 2005 its numbers have collapsed by a staggering 60%. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that this species is a much-desired bird valued by the Cypriot, Maltese and Italian trappers.

And the sorry list goes on; Wheatear, Whitethroats, Warblers and Nightingales – all facing a freefall in numbers. Conservation groups including the RSPB often point to habitat loss as a cause for rapidly declining migrants but, even the Maltese trappers are saying they rarely see these species anymore. As a boy in Hertfordshire, the countryside would resound with the calls of the Cuckoo. Last year, I returned to my boyhood haunts and the silence was deafening; the countryside and farming practices hadn’t changed, so where have all the Cuckoos gone?

Many times we feel powerless when we hear of conservation issues such as the fight to save the Orangutan, Tiger and Elephant but this is one issue every Briton can do something about. As many of these Mediterranean countries depend heavily on their tourist trade, I feel the only way forward is to boycott these holiday destinations and shame their governments into action. The time for monitoring is over, considering Malta was given until 2008 to ‘clean up its act’.

In 1962, Rachel Carson warned of a ‘Silent Spring’ caused by the terrible effects of DDT. We now have the power to prevent her nightmarish prediction happening in the not-too-distant future caused not by chemicals but by man’s greed and apathy.

 

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