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Birdlife SA Opposes La Mercy Airport Development

Date: 2006-10-13


Of late there has been a lot of discussion around this development, particularly between the members of BirdLife South Africa through various forums. The discussions revolved around some fundamental objections to the development of the international airport on the current La Mercy light aircraft site with particular reference to avifauna.

Against this background the site was visited by Neil Smith,
Manager-Conservation Division, Birdlife SA, accompanied by Roy Cowgill, Steve Davis and Terry Walls, all from BirdLife Port Natal and who have been involved with this project for several years.

The position of BirdLife South Africa.

Subsequent to the site visit and discussions, BirdLife South Africa has decided that we will oppose this development. The reasons for this are discussed below.

Avifaunal conservation issues.

1) Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
 
There is an extensive reed bed in the lower lying areas of Mount Moreland. Both the reed bed and Mount Moreland are situated South West of the proposed development and are aligned exactly with the proposed runway and hence are in the flight patch of aircraft leaving or arriving the airport. (See map)

This reed bed is used a roost in the summer months by Barn Swallows. (Hirundo rustica) which is a paleartic migrant¹ (Spotiswoode CN. 2005) that start arriving in Southern Africa from September every year from all over eastern and western Europe and leaves again at the onset of winter. Generally, reeds are a favoured roost by this species as it allows them to congregate in large numbers and use the reeds to perch above the water so that they have some protection from land based predators. A large number of this species will arrive daily at the roost site in massive numbers and from all directions.

This gathering happens just before sunset where the birds will drop in to the reed beds in synchronised layers, the lowest layer being approx 100m above the reed bed and the highest extending out of visible range.

By night fall all of the gathered swallows are clinging on to a reed for the night. The situation is reversed at just before daybreak but the rate at which the birds leave is over a longer time period.

This particular reed bed provides a safe haven for over 3 million of this species, which at the lowest estimate is a significant 13% of the world population.

As this roost is directly in line with the alignment of the runway they will almost certainly have an effect on aircraft safety. This will be particularly severe just before sunset when the birds arrive from all directions. If logic is applied to this problem, in order to ensure the safety of passengers the swallows would have to be excluded. This would consequently require that the reed bed be permanently removed to prevent the swallows roosting in it.

This then becomes the basis for our first objection. The following points are made to support this:

• This reed bed is the only reed bed in this area. Removal of it would cause the swallows to arrive one season, at nightfall to find it gone and then being faced with the prospect for finding another place to roost before nightfall. In essence, if this reed bed was removed where would they go in the “sea” of sugar cane surrounding the area? Many birds may lose their lives if this reed be was removed.
• The sheer number of birds estimated at this roost is indicative that there is little other suitable roosting areas along the Kwa Zulu-Natal coast
• As the species is a paleartic migrant the removal of this reed bed has international conservation issues.

In expanding the importance of this point, the conservation of this species is an international issue and therefore BirdLife South Africa will seek the support of our international partners and principles in our objection to this project.

Red data species³

The second point in the basis for our objection is the number of red data species that are found in the area² (Cowgill R. 2006). The avifaunal red data species amount to 13, and one mammal. The report is attached.


Conclusion

The historical modifications done to the site in years gone by have provided a refuge for many avian species that have been excluded by the intensive sugar cane farming surrounding La Mercy. (See attached bird list) The grassland created here has provided refuge for many species and this habitat has been further enhanced by the natural water pooling on the surface or coming up from underground streams creating a combination of wetland and grassland. It is worth noting that the species that have moved in to the area have done so because of habitat destruction elsewhere and therefore we strongly recommend that the area be retained and, in actual fact, be declared a protected area and managed as such.

References:
¹ Spottiswoode CN. In: Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ, Ryan PG (eds.) 2005 Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa, VIIth ed. The trustees of the John Voelker Bird Book Fund Cape Town.

² Cowgill R. 2006. Bird Red Data species found to occur at the La Mercy Airport Site.

³ Barnes, K.N. (ed.) 2000. The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.


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