I can hear the sound of penn gwynne's pencil sharpening already ...
Unhappy landing: ancient heronry threatened by airport plans
By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor
28 February 2003
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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