Hangar Talk


An example of one of the owl species that have found an ideal home alongside the First World War-era aeroplanes at Stow Maries. RUSSELL SAVORY

At first, it seemed a simple challenge: let’s get airborne with our BE2c replica and, with the centennial of the original armistice day approaching, get an air-to-air photograph over a field of poppies, which typically used to be prolific in the heart of England during midsummer.

Note the past tense. A series of recces from the air has so far this year failed to elicit a suitable backdrop. We’ve found scattered clumps, and seen plenty on the margins of motorways and dualcarriageways, but none of those seas of red we seek. It’s not just this year, either. For the past three summers we’ve been unable to locate significant concentrations of the scarlet flowers. The reason appears to be the increasing use of herbicides which have reduced the poppy population, in order to increase crop yields.

The loss of the poppies, while emotive in itself, represents a rather more worrying symptom. The patchwork of ‘green’ fields which so often distinguishes Britain from the air is today increasingly becoming a monoculture. They regularly consist of just one or two crop species being intensively farmed on ground sprayed with a cocktail of fertilisers and insecticides.

As you can imagine, in addition to robbing us of a photo-opportunity, it’s bad news for our flora and fauna. For many species of bird, animal or insect, it is almost as alien an environment as a town. Fortunately, we have a solution. Open green spaces with plenty of diversity, carefully managed and often with large areas undisturbed. They’re called airfields.

”In the face of ever-increasing planning threats to sell airfield sites for housing, perhaps it is time to make a stronger case for airfields’ roles as open green spaces”

The recent TV series The Secret Life of Owls demonstrated that the airfields we use are among our best countryside assets in terms of wildlife preservation. It was filmed by Russell Savory, the man who rediscovered the former Royal Flying Corps airfield at Stow Maries in Essex. He is also a leading conservationist and wildlife photographer. The airfield is today, despite a number of ill-conceived local authority planning restrictions, home to a small community of dedicated vintage aeroplane flyers as well as the tawny, little and barn owls that were the basis of the film.

In the face of ever-increasing planning threats to sell airfield sites for housing, perhaps it is time to make a stronger case for airfields’ roles as open green spaces. Nature and environmental surveys demonstrate that they are highly important as a lowinsecticide, low-herbicide, sanctuary for plants, insects and associated wildlife.

In contrast to intensive agriculture potentially surrounding an airfield, it’s not in an airfield owner’s interest to add artificial fertilisers to make the grass grow faster. Indeed, an airfield with grass runways has a mixture of longer grass meadowland and shorter mown runways, which is about perfect for wildlife. Among the plants on Stow Maries’ airfield periphery are nectar-giving flowers, which drive added populations of butterflies, bees and hornets. One moth species, unrecorded since 1994, was recently rediscovered on the airfield.

Almost all of us will have heard skylarks in the summer, seemingly unaware of the sound of aircraft around them. Others will have seen hares break cover when disturbed by a taxiing aeroplane. I’ve even heard a pilot recall having to go around when a red deer stag steadfastly refused to move from the runway and, of course, visitors to the Shuttleworth Collection’s evening airshows will be well aware of the occasional breaks in the aeroplane flying action to accommodate the resident Old Warden heron and occasional flocks of Canada geese returning to their roosting sites.

Even if there are tarmac runways, the longer grass around them provides nesting cover for birds such as larks and lapwings, as well as mice, voles, and butterflies, bees and moths. They in turn can create an eco-system, as predators such as sparrowhawks and owls take advantage of the food chain. Let’s get our message out there. Our airfields are both wildlife sanctuaries and, due to the housing threats, endangered species.