All airports must take measures to reduce the risk of birdstrike. In the wrong place, large birds – or flocks of smaller ones – can pose a serious hazard to aircraft.
At Heathrow there are always two dedicated bird patrol vehicles on duty (one for each runway). For Ian – who in his spare time enjoys both plane-spotting and birdwatching – it’s a favourite part of the job.
“I think some people find it boring but for me it’s really fascinating and enjoyable to see and hear all the different birds. Obviously, the object is not to see any birds at all! But I do enjoy seeing them.”
While Heathrow manages 13 nature conservation areas on-site, covering 170 hectares, it’s a different story on the airfield. There, even the length and type of grass is carefully managed to deter wandering wildlife.
The idea, says Ian, is to divert birds away from the runways: “Why would they want to come to Heathrow when a few minutes down the road there’s a fantastic nature reserve full of insects to eat and places to roost?
“As a company we do whatever we can to ensure it’s safe for aircraft and for our passengers, but we’re also looking after the environment.”
This doesn’t stop every bird, of course. Those that enter the airfield can range from swans and geese to flocks of starlings or gulls. This is where Ian uses the many tricks of his trade.
Safety officials are ultimately allowed to kill birds to prevent an accident, but it’s the last thing anyone wants to do. “My goal is to make sure we don’t get to that position in the first place,” says Ian.
So instead the birds are moved along repeatedly until they’re no longer a risk to aircraft. “It’s all done humanely,” he says. “You’re just moving the bird off to another area, you don’t have to kill it or injure it. All you’re doing is making it a bit uncomfortable.”
Ian’s bird-scaring methods
In some cases – for instance, gulls gathering on top of the cargo building – bird patrollers may use drones or even lasers to send the birds on their way. Both methods need careful handling around the airfield.
Safe as swans
But it isn’t always needed – sometimes the birds get the message without prompting. Ian recently watched two swans fly along the perimeter road, parallel to the runway, then turn at the end and cross the airfield well below the flight path.
“I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” he says.
Biodiversity at Heathrow
CAA guidance on wildlife hazard