A Battle for the skies around Bristol was looming last night as airport bosses claimed a new West haven for wetland birds would threaten planes. Nature lovers hope to turn farmland near the sea at Clevedon into a paradise for wintering ducks and geese in the Severn estuary and as a breeding site for rare species.
But the idea has ruffled feathers at Bristol International Airport, which is little more than seven miles away as the crow flies and only last month unveiled £80million expansion plans.
Chiefs fear the mini-Slimbridge wetlands scheme could encourage bird flight patterns to change, with a possible increase in hazard to aircraft.
"Although birds in flight around the area of the proposed Dowlais Farm wetlands pose little risk to aircraft, once birds are in flight above the higher ground where the airport is situated, they then pose a significant risk to aircraft.
"Although it is impossible to determine bird flight-lines and the times of flight between roosting, feeding and preening sites it is highly likely that once the site was colonised, which is the intention of the wetlands project, that the bird species would establish flight-lines between the known water bodies and feeding sites to the southeast and north-east of Bristol International Airport, which include Chew Valley Lake, Blagdon Lake, Barrow Tanks and Yanley Lane landfill site.
"This has the potential to greatly increase the bird hazard at Bristol International Airport and it is for this reason that the airport has voiced its objection to the proposed plan." Supporters, on the other hand, say the 178 acres earmarked at Dowlais Farm will be a vital refuge for birds that flock to the West from as far as Siberia. Among the migrating and wintering breeds found on the estuary are ringed plover, dunlin, wigeon, teal, tufted ducks, shelduck, Bewick's swan, and pintail.
The wetlands site, which will be deliberately kept damp with trapped rain, would provide shelter and also encourage species such as redshank, lapwing and curlew to breed.
Studies done for North Somerset Council, which owns the farm and is behind the scheme, support the views of bird experts that the site would not be a nuisance, despite the airport's concerns.
"We don't think it is a problem as far as we see it, but obviously we have to persuade the airport that it isn't a problem, " said Pauline Homer, ecologist for North Somerset.
"We maintain, and English Nature maintain, that we are not actually changing the bird flight paths, and the that the site is already part of the wetlands site designated as of international importance." Money for the haven, which is expected to cost about £200,000, has come from a planning agreement with a developer which built new homes at Locking Castle, in Weston-super-Mare.
If all goes to plan and it is completed over the next three to four years then the wetlands could help combat falling bird numbers.
Bob Corns, English Nature conservation officer for the Bristol Channel between Portishead and Minehead, described the airport's fears as "a bit of a nonsense." "The birds are already there, it is very unlikely we will be attracting more, " he said. "There might be a few more in the summer but they are not going to be flying around at a height that will get tangled up with jets." One man who will be pleased to see the wetlands developed is Neville Hughes, tenant of the councilowned Dowlais Farm. The land will still be farmable once it has become wetland, although it will support fewer animals.
After years as a dairy farmer facing increasing industry pressures, the 64-year-old is prepared to turn his attention to keeping an eye on the site and possibly raising some beef breeds such as Aberdeen Angus cattle.
Under the plans, the wetlands would be maintained by a series of reservoirs, dykes, shallow ponds and sluices.
A VERDICT on the project is set to be made next week when members of the council's north area committee decide whether or not to grant planning permission.
Officers are recommending that the haven is allowed to be built, if the potential hazards to the airport and some concerns from the Environment Agency about flooding can be overcome.
The airport announced lastmonth how it plans to double the size of its terminal.
Most serious is when larger species are sucked into jet engines, potentially causing catastrophic failure and accidents.
Earlier this year, a Boeing 737 bound for Bristol Airport suffered a major scare when it ran into a flock of 21,000 racing pigeons. Many of the birds were sucked into the plane's twin engines, causing one to fail completely and forcing the plane to return to Dublin airport for an emergency landing.
The accident happened at 600ft just seconds after the plane took off.
Risks of bird strike are highest when planes are taking off or landing, because at cruising altitudes there are no birds to hit. It was the third incident of its kind in two years in Ireland, and such problems are far from unknown in the UK.
Many airports, commercial and military, take steps to reduce the risk of bird strike.
At RNAS Yeovilton, near Yeovil, a peregrine falcon called Meare has been keeping flocks away for six years, and even earned his own long-service medal.
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