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Thames estuary airport threat to rare wildlife

by Rose Crompton

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credit: Kent Wildlife Trust/Sue Young

Wildlife groups have said the construction of a new international airport in the Thames estuary could spell disaster for rare insects, plants and birds, after it emerged this week that the government is planning a formal consultation on proposals for the hub.

Seventeen local and national organisations make up the Biodiversity Action Group that works to protect the delicate habitat in the estuary and they say that the proposals, which include creating a man-made island or building on the Isle of Grain, could have devastating consequences for rare and endangered wildlife in the area.

According to conservation charity Buglife, the estuary is one of the last habitats to support rare species of bumblebee and other invertebrates and development in the area could precipitate a further dangerous decline in numbers.

“The east Thames corridor region currently supports one of the most important remaining metapopulations of the Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) and Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) in the UK,” explains Dr Sarah Henshall, Brownfield Conservation Officer at Buglife. “These bees have suffered major declines across the UK due to agricultural improvement and the loss of wild flowers. Many of the sites where they remain are under direct threat of development, so the loss of habitat on the Isle of Grain could be detrimental to the survival of these species,” she warns.

The Isle of Grain is also home to the White eye-stripe hoverfly (Paragus albifrons) which until recently was believed to be extinct, and Mellet’s downy-back beetle (Ophonus melletii), which is so rare that it has only been seen five times in the UK in the last 20 years.

Hundreds of thousands of birds such as ringed plovers, redshanks, avocets, black-tailed godwits and dunlins, also use the estuary, as an essential feeding ground during winter or migration.

“Evidence from a similar case of intertidal habitat destruction, in Cardiff Bay some years ago, suggested that many birds returning to the area on their annual migration would simply remain there until they died soon afterwards,” says RSPB spokesperson Nik Shelton. “Even if they were to move on elsewhere we know that stop-off feeding areas like this are vital for birds on long migrations. The truth is that we may never know the real impact of developments like these until long after it is too late.”

The estuary is also home to nationally important and rare species of plants such as bulbous foxtail (Alopecurus bulbosus)and saltmarsh goosefoot (Chenopodium chenopodioides) as well as the endangered least lettuce (Lactuca saligna).

“There will be a huge loss of habitat from any development and this will result in a loss of associated wildlife. Much of the wildlife is also susceptible to disturbance, so the areas around any airport will also be rendered unusable to them,” says Greg Hitchcock, Thames Estuary Officer for Kent Wildlife Trust.

The government will be consulting on proposals for the airport as part of a wider attempt to solve the airport capacity crunch in the south east.

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