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Roost Reprieve

Runway success for La Mercy swallows…

As five million Barn Swallows migrate from across Europe to roost in South Africa’s Mt Moreland Reedbed, they will be greeted by more than just birdwatchers. In future air traffic controllers at La Mercy Airport will be among those watching the birds come in, if necessary informing pilots of the swallow flocks when coming into land so that collisions can be avoided. The plan to protect the birds will be announced tomorrow (November 11) at a special ceremony at the reedbed, attended by BirdLife South Africa. The decision – one of a number of key mitigation actions announced – was made in response to global outcry last November, when BirdLife outlined its concern about the expansion of La Mercy Airport, in preparation for South Africa’s hosting of World Cup 2010.

The threat that planes would pose to the adjacent roost – arguably Africa’s largest – was put across by conservationists and BirdLife Partners throughout Europe, most notably by the RSPB, BirdLife’s Partner in the UK, a country in which a number of the Barn Swallows breed.The campaign was led by BirdLife South Africa: “This has been a fantastic result, and we’re delighted to report on this outcome after a year of negotiations and meetings. The support of so many people – via letters and petitions – has played an important part.” said Neil Smith, Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa. “Since our campaign started, the Airports Company of South Africa [the organisation behind La Mercy] has really come on board, quickly realising the importance of this site as a reedbed of international significance.”

Following BirdLife’s complaint, consultants were brought in to examine the roosting and flocking behaviour of the swallows, using advanced radar imagery. Their results confirmed that constant monitoring of the swallow movements during take-off and landing of aircraft would be required. The Airports Company of South Africa has now listed a number of measures that it will take to ensure that the roost and the airport can coexist. These include employing environmental management staff to make sure that suitable management of the reedbed continues.Perhaps most significantly, the same advanced radar technology used to study the movement of the swallows will also be installed in the airport control tower. This will mean that planes can take the option of circling or approaching from another angle when large flocks of swallows form over the reedbed site in the late evening.

“Losing such a valuable site could have affected breeding swallow populations across Europe”, said Dr Ian Burfield, Birdlife’s European Research and Database Manager. “Conserving migratory birds is about more than ensuring one site is protected or well managed. It takes global effort: at breeding sites, at stopover sites during migration, and at important non-breeding sites like this, where large numbers of birds roost.”

The Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica undertakes one of the world’s most remarkable migrations, with many individuals flying thousands of miles in spring to breed in Europe and then repeating the feat in the autumn, to spend the boreal winter in southern Africa. Numbers of Barn Swallows have declined across many European countries, largely as a result of agricultural intensification and simplification.

4th July 2014