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World Cup airport threatens first swallow of British spring

The bird that heralds the start of British spring is being put at risk by the 2010 World Cup.

The South African government wants to transform a runway for light aircraft into an international airport on a site near Durban that lures more than three million swallows to roost every night.

Each evening the birds swoop and dive over the 250 metre square area in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal in eastern South Africa, before plunging down to night-time safety in dense vegetation.

Their performance is one of the best wildlife spectacles in South Africa. Many of the Kwa-Zulu Natal swallows are thought to migrate to Britain and elsewhere in Europe to breed and in the UK, spotting the first swallow and following the birds’ progress from southern England into the rest of the UK is one of the joys of spring

Neil Smith, Conservation Division Manager at BirdLife South Africa said: “The swallows come here because it is the only suitable roosting site for them in the whole of the region. The area is surrounded by sugar cane plantations and if it is cleared, these birds could suffer considerable declines.

“We cannot simply create a new reedbed which would take too long even assuming there was a suitable alternative site. And if we did, there would be no guarantee that the swallows would use it, or even find it.

“There is no room for compromise here, World Cup or not. This site is crucial for swallows and if it is lost, Kwa-Zulu Natal will lose an emblem of the season while one of Britain’s most popular birds could also begin to disappear.”

The swallows’ roosting site, the Mount Moreland Reedbed, 20km north of Durban, is about the size of four football pitches. In 2007 it will be classified as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International because of its importance to swallows. The reedbed is thought to host more than eight per cent of the millions of swallows breeding in Europe, from Denmark to Britain to Belarus. It is also used by lesser kestrels, corncrakes and crowned eagles, all of which are now uncommon.

Mount Moreland lies on the flight path of aircraft that will arrive and depart from the proposed La Mercy airport. BirdLife South Africa fears the reedbed will be cleared because the birds could threaten aircraft safety.

Swallow populations have already fallen in Britain probably because of drought and pesticide use on their migration route and the conversion of farm buildings and other, favoured, UK nesting sites.

An environmental impact assessment is under way at La Mercy but BirdLife South Africa suspects an adverse outcome will be overturned in favour of potential economic opportunities including new jobs and trade. BirdLife and its UK partner, the RSPB, say the airport proposal should be scrapped and the site be turned into a protected area instead, to safeguard the swallows it harbours.

Paul Buckley, Head of Global Programmes at the RSPB said: “The loss of Mount Moreland and with it thousands of British swallows, could be felt from Thurrock to Thurso and Sofia to Stockholm. It would be devastating for these birds, which are particularly sensitive to change.

“Swallows are one of Britain’s favourite birds; they are an icon of spring and the epitome of summer. But developments undertaken without good environmental protection as far away as Kwa-Zulu Natal may trigger their long term decline right here on our doorsteps.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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