Page last updated at 17:51 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 18:51 UK

Sheep rule defunct Cyprus village

By Steven Duke
Editor, One Planet, BBC World Service

Rusted car in Variseia

There's a village in the Mediterranean where animals such as the sheep-like Mouflon are never shooed out of the bar, herded out of a house, or prevented from having a rummage among the clothes, shoes and books that lay scattered among the rooms.

It's a free-for-all as far as the animals are concerned, and they're thriving. This village on the island of Cyprus inevitably has a sad tale behind it, but scientists are gleaning a wealth of information from the area as nature flourishes following a 35 year absence from any significant human activity.

Divided land

In 1974, after Turkish troops invaded the island amid political upheaval, the residents of Variseia - who were Greek Cypriots - received 24 hours' notice to leave their homes as conflict enveloped Cyprus.

Eventually a divide was created to separate Turkish Cypriots from Greek Cypriots, a barrier that runs through the island. In parts, such as in the capital city Nicosia, the divide is only a few meters wide, but elsewhere on the island it stretches to over 7km. Variseia sits in this no-man's land to the mountainous north of the island.

Juvenile mouflon (SPL)
Mouflons are thriving as frequent houseguests in Varisiea

"This area was originally called the green line because a soldier drew the line with a green marker pen on the map, but we'd like to show the world it is a green line because it's a wildlife corridor," remarks Nicolas Jarraud, an environmental officer from the local UN Development Programme.

Pigeons, foxes and rats have got comfortable where humans once bedded down. But more exotic animals and plants have also found the lack of human activity in the buffer zone to their liking.

Mouflon, with their impressive set of horns, have flourished in the region. Some 300 are now estimated to be roaming through the divide, under the gaze of heavily armed Turkish Cypriot soldiers on one side, similarly armed Greek Cypriots on the other, and in the middle UN soldiers and scientists.

"The Mouflon have benefitted from the buffer zone because it provides them with shelter from hunters and with habitat, which in other parts of the island has essentially disappeared," notes Mr Jarraud.

Undisturbed mountains

In this no-man's land, it takes a lot of effort to disturb the wildlife. You need a UN escort to guide you through the checkpoints and safely past the minefields left over from the battles. Then there are the steep, dusty, rocky roads you drive along for miles.

And you need to make sure you've done all this in the small hours of the morning, so when you get into the mountains, the Mouflon and their fellow residents haven't already retired into hiding from the searing Cypriot heat.

Salih Gucel
I have thousands and thousands of images of the Mouflon, but I always want one more
Salih Gucel

But that's key, says scientist Iris Charalambidou, who is an expert in Cypriot birdlife and has been allowed to visit the area on a number of occasions. She says it is the lack of any easy way into the region, with no new development, that has been fundamental to nature's success.

"There's been a lack of habitat fragmentation. That's when you start building roads or new buildings, and the habitat is divided into ever smaller areas with an impact on a wide range of different species," she points out.

There's a name for parts of the world like Cyprus's buffer zone, which have been cut off from human activity by conflict or disaster: an "involuntary park".

The reclaiming of the village by nature is slow - cars and glass bottles are not easily consumed. But Salih Gucel, who has just finished heading a year-long UN-backed study into the region, is happy to take his time and keep on returning to record the transformation.

 "I have thousands and thousands of images of the Mouflon, but I always want one more. I would never have thought I'd see 18 of them walking in a line, but I did a little while ago," he enthusiastically says.

The child's text book; the high-heeled shoe; the empty custard powder tin that lay in the empty buildings. Signs of a previous life are everywhere in Variseia. But new life is also being documented - it's just of a different kind.

You can hear the full report from Variseia in this week's One Planet show

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Country profile: Cyprus
13 Dec 11 |  Country profiles


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