THE number of songbirds being illegally trapped and killed at a British military base on Cyprus has reached record levels, conservation charities claim.

An estimated 900,000 birds were caught at Dhekelia - a UK sovereign base area in the south east of the island - last autumn, according to data compiled by BirdLife Cyprus, the RSPB's BirdLife International partner.

This is the highest figure ever recorded for the poaching season of September to October, and is equivalent to almost 15,000 songbirds a day.

It is three times higher than when monitoring began in 2002 and is being blamed on a rise in organised crime.

The base authorities are being urged to clamp down on the illegal activity by removing the planted scrub which the trappers use as cover.

But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) claimed the figures were "unverified" and insisted it was committed to tackling the poachers.

Songbirds such as warblers and wheatears are being slaughtered to be used as ingredients for the Cypriot delicacy ambelopoulia.

Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB's international director, said: "The illegal trapping of songbirds on the British military base has escalated and we are urging the Ministry of Defence and the base area authorities to resolve it before this autumn's migration.

"Such extensive illegal activity requires all the Cyprus authorities to work together to combat it, and the base areas' contribution should be zero-tolerance towards illegal bird trapping.

"We were pleased that the base area authorities have started to remove acacia scrub last December. We believe the scale of illegal trapping requires continuing and sustained action, and we'll continue to offer our support."

An MoD spokesman said: "We do not accept the report's unverified claims about loss of bird life during this period, which was based upon data collected from a very short period.

"We are committed to tackling poaching which is why we arrested nearly 50 poachers and seized 450 nets and 286 pieces of poaching equipment during the last migration period.

"When we catch poachers we can fine them 17,000 euros (£12,000), or send them to prison for up to three years. We continue to work with local organisations to discuss how we can work as effectively as possible."

An RSPB spokesman said: "We are confident that the figures obtained by BirdLife Cyprus are robust."