Three hundred British soldiers were confronted and surrounded by hundreds of Xylofagou residents on Thursday, after the former were sent to cut down acacia trees frequented by wild birds that are illegally trapped and sold as a local delicacy.
The church bell of the village was used to wake up the residents at 3am after the soldiers were seen cutting down trees. Initial reports had suggested that around 800 residents assembled in the area.
The standoff ended at around 12pm, after the British authorities came to an agreement with representatives of the community to stop cutting down the trees until a new village council was voted in December.
Reports say the soldiers, using chainsaws, who began cutting down the vegetation used to conceal the mist nets and lime sticks for catching songbirds, that are later served up illegally as ambelopoulia, were blocked from leaving the area by the residents after they discovered what they were up to.
Bases spokesman Kristian Gray told the Cyprus Mail that the operation was a military exercise to clear vegetation that was obstructing the view of a firing range.
“We began clearing the Pyla firing ranges for safety reasons,” he said. “It’s our main range for training and the view of the arc of fire was obstructed. Good vision is needed otherwise it’s dangerous.”
He described the standoff as a “peaceful protest” and said no arrests had been made.
Gray stressed that this was not a standoff as reported in some media, and that the “British soldiers were not enclaved and could leave if they wished, but had decided to stay with their vehicles.”
The trucks that carried the soldiers had been blocked by the residents.
Gray said the chief officer of the bases administration was on site and had spoken with the community leader of Xylofagou, Tasos Anglogalos.
Reports say Anglogalos had intervened to make sure the soldiers received food and water.
The acacia is the main tree which attracts the birds and is usually planted deliberately by trappers.
The reason given for removing the acacia on Thursday differed from that the bases authorities gave in July when they clearly stated protecting the wild birds was their priority.
“This week the bases will chop down more acacia bushes at Cape Pyla ahead of the anticipated illegal bird trapping season,” a news release said at the time, adding that “the acacia has been planted by bird trappers and encouraged to grow by illegally watering the areas.
Recent aerial photography of the area has revealed that trappers have moved back into areas which have previously been cut back and replanted acacia and introduced new irrigation, this will now be removed.
An announcement from the bases later said they recognised the right to protest. “However protests must be both peaceful and legal. In this instance a group of individuals have acted in an unacceptable manner,” a statement said.
“Whilst vegetation was predominantly removed for range safety reasons this action bolsters the SBAs long term commitment to remove all invasive plant species from our agreed Special Areas of Conservation and contributes towards our campaign to prevent illegal hunting of migrating birds.”
BirdLife Cyprus said later it supported acacia removal at Cape Pyla.
“It must be noted that the large areas of acacia located in Cape Pyla are used for the illegal trapping of birds with mist nets. These trees were illegally planted by trappers and continue to be watered illegally with the sole purpose of attracting and trapping birds, mainly with the use of mist nets,” the organisation said.
It added that trappers had illegally installed irrigation systems to water the acacias in order to help them grow fast, which develop rich foliage, making them more attractive to birds.
The watering systems use water from illegal boreholes or water intended for agriculture, further depleting the already degraded water tables.
“In the last 15-20 years Cape Pyla has been transformed, with the planting, watering and management of acacias from the trappers, into one of the worst areas for illegal trapping and killing of migratory birds in the Mediterranean,” said BirdLife’s campaign manager Tassos Shialis.
“At Cape Pyla there is organised and extensive trapping of thousands of migratory birds every night during the autumn migration, with the use of mist nets and electronic calling devices, hence with the removal of acacias the large scale killing of migratory birds in that area will stop,” he said.
He said moreover, acacia was an invasive alien plant species in Cyprus and displaces native species, thus destroying the natural habitat of the area in which it grows.
The native habitat in Cape Pyla is floristically very rich, with rich flower diversity and low phrygana vegetation and very few trees and never constituted a forest ecosystem, BirdLife said.
As a consequence, the presence of acacias in the area negatively affects beyond the plant species also the fauna species that depend on this type of vegetation.
“Invasive alien species are a time-bomb for biodiversity and the European Union is tackling this problem through a new Regulation 1143 which was adopted in 2014. The restoration of protected areas from invading acacias is also an obligation under the Habitats Directive as well as the laws the Republic of Cyprus implements, which require the restoration of habitats to a favourable status.”