How Green is your Airfield?

Flying sites can support a surprising amount of wildlife. Grassy areas may harbour colourful wild flowers and be home to small mammals which are food for birds of prey like owls. A recent survey listed no fewer than 105 species of plant found on a small grass airfield in the South of England

Small trees and bushes encourage birds to nest and give shelter to butterflies. Some of our rarest plants and insects live in ponds and marshy areas. If an airfield lacks wildlife it is possible to make improvements without incurring large costs or compromising safety.

Reducing the number of grass cuts can be beneficial for many small creatures and can save time and money. Try to delay mowing if birds like skylarks are nesting and until flowering plants have shed their seeds. Removing the clippings creates better conditions for many native plants, so it is better to bale and remove the cuttings as hay. A local farmer may be able to help and this could give a small income. If areas of grass lack wild flowers, it may be possible to introduce them. Try to reduce or avoid the use of artificial fertilisers or herbicides.

Hedges and woods of native species are immense benefit to song birds. Their numbers have declined in areas where hedges have been removed or are cut before fruits and seeds form in the autumn. Small trees and bushes, such as Field Marple, Rowan, Wild Rose, Dogwood, Hawthorn and Blackthorn can be planted where space allows along boundaries and in corners. Similarly ponds and marshes have gone from many areas of farmland and frogs, toads and dragonflies will appreciate their creation.

Improving your airfield with plant and wildlife habitats which are compatible with flying operations can bring extra benefits. The local environment will be improved by tree planting which screens buildings and reduces noise.  

Most wildlife adapts easily to an airfield environment but warn pilots that deer or other creatures could appear on the runway.

Take a small grass airfield

To establish plant and wildlife habitats which are compatible with flying operations at small rural airfields.

Unimproved grassland is common at flying sites but rare in modern agriculture. It must be preserved and exploited in order to encourage greater diversity of species. ‘Bio-Diversity’ was one of the main planks of the Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit at Rio in 1992 to which the UK is a signatory.

How Can This Be Done?
Land not needed for take-off and landing strips or for aircraft movement areas can be utilised without creating a hazard to flying operations. Expert advice must be taken on planting and on best practice to conserve native plants and wildlife species. Migration into undisturbed areas of airfields can be encouraged and ponds and wetlands conserved and repaired.

Who Benefits?
Care of your airfield and environment will benefit wildlife over a wide area and will create a site of natural beauty for all to see and enjoy. An airfield can be a valuable open space, safe from development.

Flight Safety Considerations
(See CAP 168, Licensing of Aerodromes and CAP 428, Safety Standards at Unlicensed Aerodromes.)

When planting, select tree and shrub species of modest size to avoid creating unacceptable wind turbulence when fully grown.

Keep planting at least 30-40m clear of airstrips and of approach and landing paths. Keep the approach funnels (see fig B2 in CAP 428) completely clear of trees or other obstructions.

Establish good hedges but leave adequate gaps for emergency vehicles.

Learn which bird species may safely be encouraged without increasing bird-strike danger.

Wildlife quickly adapts to an airfield environment but pilots must be alert to the possible appearance of deer, other mammals and birds which could be a collision risk.

Public access to wildlife areas on airfields can be encouraged by establishing footpaths, but aircraft movement areas must be clearly signed.

Possible Land Uses

Grass Areas
Grass Areas within 30m of aircraft movement areas – cut for hay as late as possible, then leave to encourage wild flowers to establish and propagate.

Woodland Area
Plant native trees and shrubs of low form e.g. spindle, Dogwood, Wild Rose and Hawthorn. Leave grass uncut between to encourage insects and birds.

Grant aid may be available for approved planting schemes.

Ponds will soon be sought out by frogs, toads and water fowl. plants and fish can be introduced if there is no danger of drying out in summer.

Perimeter Hedges
Perimeter Hedges clear of take-off and landing paths can be planted at intervals with native hardwood trees: Oak, Ash, Hornbeam and Beech.

Birds and Mammals
Birds and Mammals to share your airfield with include hares, foxes, badgers and deer, as well as a proliferation of insects, butterflies and moths of all descriptions, to say nothing of skylarks, swallows and other small birds. Kestrels will hunt for small mammals in the long grass and owls will also find these areas attractive.

Useful Sources of Advice and Information
The Environment Agency (formerly the National Rivers Authority)
The Ramblers Association
The Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (RSPB)
English Nature
The Forestry Authority
District And County Councils
Local Wildlife Trusts

It is best to seek local advice before making changes to ensure that tme and money are spent in the most beneficial way.

Thanks are due for their help to the Countryside Management Service, who have given advice and assistance in Hertfordshire and North London for 21 years. They can be contacted on 01992 588433.   

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