Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Red Kites stray into airfield at their peril

RED kites straying on to the airfield at RAF Benson will be shot if there is a risk of collision with an aircraft.

Natural England, in conjunction with the RSPB and the base, has written to villagers urging them not to feed the birds following four collisions between aircraft and red kites.

The first bird strike was in July 2012 and involved a Sea King helicopter. The second was in July last year and involved a Merlin helicopter. The other two happened in April and May this year and involved a Merlin and Grob Tutor plane respectively.

The letter says there is “serious concern” about people feeding red kites in gardens near the base.

It says: “The bird control unit on the airfield has undertaken a considerable programme of non-lethal measures to deter kites and limit the risk of collision with an aircraft. However, despite these efforts, two collisions between aircraft and red kites have already occurred.

“In response, Natural England has issued a licence to allow the shooting of red kites on the airfield if there is a risk of collision and there is no other option to avoid this risk.”

Natural England says it appealed to villagers to stop feeding the birds in August and decided to write again because the practice “does not appear to have declined”. The letter continues: “If there is no reduction in kite feeding in gardens, the risk remains that red kites will be lethally controlled under licence to protect air safety. The feeding of red kites in Benson is encouraging the birds to gather on the perimeter of RAF Benson and fly in large numbers over the airfield.

“This increases the risk of collision with aircraft and endangers people both on the airbase and in the surrounding area. Should a collision occur it could result in serious injury or even death for a crew as well as for people on the ground. Collisions are also likely to kill or injure red kites.

“If feeding stopped, the kites would forage more widely across the surrounding countryside, reducing the risk. This will not have any detrimental impact on the birds themselves. Red kites are generalist feeders with plenty of natural food and are not reliant on hand-outs from humans.

“We want to ensure the future of the red kites around RAF Benson but we have to put the safety of the aircrews and the surrounding human population first.”

Tom Stevenson, chairman of Benson Ecological Study Team, said there were recognised ways to discourage the birds from airfields, such as allowing the grass to grow longer. Kites were attracted to short grass where they could find worms which make up the bulk of their diet.

He said a lot of effort went into re-introducing red kites to the Chilterns in the Nineties and added: “They are not RAF birds, they are our birds. The whole of Benson is a kite sanctuary if you like.” Wing Commander Colin West, the officer commanding operations wing at RAF Benson, said: “A licence was issued to RAF Benson in June 2013 for the culling of red kites for flight safety purposes.

“Thankfully, to date we have not used it and we hope that we don’t have to. However, a growing number of bird strikes, coupled with the size and nature of the red kite, mean that the threat to aircraft safety at RAF Benson has increased.

“While all possible measures are being taken to discourage the birds from activity around the airfield, for our safety and for their own, these methods are being hampered by the local community feeding the birds.

“We would therefore urge, as do Natural England and the RSPB, that the red kites are not fed and are allowed to return to their natural hunting methods.”

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