Unhappy landing: ancient heronry threatened by airport plans

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The Independent Online

In the gloaming they appear as fantastic shapes – angular, elongated, with almost a touch of the prehistoric about them, as if pterodactyls were swooping through the skies.

In the gloaming they appear as fantastic shapes – angular, elongated, with almost a touch of the prehistoric about them, as if pterodactyls were swooping through the skies.

But these are herons, scores of them, floating from the marshes where they have spent the day hunting, to their roosting place in an ancient wood. The flap of their great wings is languid and deliberate, the bringing forward of their gangly legs seems clumsy in the extreme, but unfailingly they come to rest in the top branches of the oak trees uttering hoarse squawks – an unearthly sound in the still evening air.

The spectacle is astonishing. This is Northward Hill wood in Kent, the largest heronry in Britain, where more than 160 pairs of the great fisher birds breed every year. And if government proposals reissued yesterday, for a new airport at Cliffe on the Kent marshes go ahead, it will be bulldozed.

Not that the Government spells this out for members of the public. That would hardly be good PR. The principal consultation document merely indicates, if you look very closely, that Northward Hill is inside the airport "footprint".

To find out what will really happen to the ancient oak wood, which supports a prolific population of bird life, from long-eared owls to nightingales, you have to dig deep into the technical literature supporting the South East and East of England Regional Air Service Study (Seras).

In Seras Stage Two: Appraisal Findings Report, Chapter 11, Para 11.2.4, you will find the following: "Of the 'enabling works and infrastructure' figures shown above, a significant portion is attributable to earthworks. In Option A2(2) they account for £2.1bn, and in Option A2(3) £2.2bn, including contingencies. These figures reflect a balanced cut and fill operation, creating a platform at approximately 18m above sea level, designed to optimise cost by avoiding the need for excessive and costly disposal or import of material, and thereby minimising construction impacts on the local community".

That is how governments describe their intentions to destroy treasures of the natural world: in dense and impenetrable language, presented in a positive way. To "minimise construction impacts on the local community".

But to do some decoding: the "balanced cut and fill operation" means that Northward Hill, a chalk spur 200 feet (60m) high that stretches from the North Downs to the edge of the marshes of the Thames estuary, would, in a gigantic piece of engineering costing more than £2bn, be flattened and the resulting chalk used to build the raised base for the runways and the airport.

The two southern runways, close scrutiny of the plans shows, would stretch virtually to the very point where the birds above are pictured.

The heronry, with its 320-plus inhabitants, contains virtually all the herons of the lower Thames. And for several years it has held a growing population of little egrets, the smaller, white relatives of the heron, which began breeding in Britain in 1996. (If you look closely, you will see there is a little egret immediately either side of the bird in flight.)

Yet razing the whole thing would only be the most egregious of the environmental consequences of building a new airport at Cliffe, which was put forward as an option for the second time yesterday by Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport.

It was first suggested last July as one of several choices for expanding airport capacity in the South-east. The plan included new runways at Heathrow and Stansted, but ignored Gatwick. A High Court challenge forced to the Government to include Gatwick in its plans, and the revised document published yesterday offered the options of one, or two, Gatwick runways to boost passenger capacity.

But the option of a completely new aviation hub at Cliffe, east of Gravesend, was reaffirmed by the Government, to the anger of environmentalists.

The proposed new airport is in the middle of one of the most protected areas, in conservation terms, in all of Britain. The lower Thames estuary is blanketed with protected sites under the Ramsar Convention, the international treaty covering wetlands, and the European Union Birds Directive; and the airport would directly affect five nature reserves run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), including Northward Hill. The area contains up to 200,000 wintering wildfowl; in summer, it hosts more than 100 breeding pairs of avocets, the bird that is the RSPB's symbol.

Quite apart from what the airport will do to the birds, what the birds might do to the planes is obvious. The dangers of "birdstrike" will be ever-present.

Not from herons, though, the biggest birds in the area. You have to give the Government that. They'll have been taken care of.

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