Hundreds of the harbingers of spring face the devastation of not raising chicks this year because their nesting colony on coastal cliffs has been boarded up by council edict. Conservationists at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds say their advice was not followed when the nets were draped over the sandy North Sea crags, leaving the birds to perch longingly inches from their prospective nest burrows. As the RSPB called on North Norfolk District Council to remove the nets from cliffs at Bacton so the martins can lay eggs and raise fledglings this summer, the Government has entered the fray about birds having their nesting sites disrupted by developers.
This spring has seen unprecedented attempts by builders to prevent birds from building nests in trees and along hedgerows where work is scheduled to start by putting up netting. It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to destroy or disturb wild birds’ nests, meaning developers are often left unable to work on construction sites for months during spring and summer in fear of being prosecuted.
With more than 225,000 people signing a parliamentary petition demanding that preventing birds from nesting by putting up nets be made a criminal offence, ministers are advising developers to take more care to protect wildlife.
Communities Secretary James Brokenshire has written to leading developers reminding them of their legal obligation to consider the impacts on local wildlife.
He said: “While building new homes is vital, we must take every care to avoid unnecessary loss of habitats that provide much-needed space for nature, including birds. Developments should enhance natural environments, not destroy them.
“Netting trees and hedgerows is only likely to be appropriate where it is genuinely needed to protect birds from harm during development. I hope developers will take these words on board and play their full role to make sure we can deliver new communities in an environmentally sustainable way.”
For the sand martins of Bacton, their potential nest burrows tunnelled into the soft rock over many years are disrupting a “sandscaping” scheme to protect the coast from erosion that threatens a huge gas terminal as well hundreds of nearby homes.
The sight of a pairs of sand martin perched on thick black netting just inches away from burrows excavated by the birds in previous years angered birdwatcher Maggie Wilcox who photographed the desolate scenes.
Describing how the netting covered more than a kilometre of coastline, she explained: “It’s very extensive. Thousands of square metres of cliff face are covered. No doubt hundreds of sand martins will be prevented from nesting and breeding successfully this season.”
At the RSPB there were strongly-worded concerns that the council had failed to heed expert advice.
Spokesman Martin Fowlie said: “The decision by North Norfolk District Council to net the cliffs at Bacton does not follow the advice previously given by the RSPB, nor indeed the council’s own plans for this site.
“We are now calling on the council to remove the nets so that sand martins can return to their nest sites after their long flight from Africa.”
Sand martins are currently a green listed conservation concern species but their numbers can be seriously impacted by environmental factors. Fifty years ago there was a major population crash when droughts struck their sub-Saharan wintering grounds.
As hole nesting birds, choosing river banks, quarries and coastal cliffs, they are always at the risk of natural hazards such as land-slippage and flooding.
There has been social media outrage over the images that show the birds blockaded by the thick black nets, with conservationists describing the council’s actions as outrageous.
One commentator stormed: “Poor sand martins, exhausted from their long journey to their historic nesting site. It’s so upsetting especially with awareness of nature’s importance these days. No wonder our wildlife is declining.”
Another added: “All the way from Africa to be turned away from their nests – outrageous!”
North Norfolk District Council says the coastal management Bacton Sandscaping Scheme is a highly complex project designed to protect hundreds of homes as well as the critical infrastructure of Bacton Gas Terminal for many years to come, having been five years in planning. It has also been subject to a full environmental impact assessment, planning permission and marine licence applications.
A council spokesman added: “We understand that the RSPB have concerns around the temporary netting element of the project and we are intending to meet with them and contractors on site to fully assess what those concerns are.
“Careful consideration of what time of year to progress was given because of the need for good weather and longer days, with the summer significantly safer for both the scheme’s success and for contractors working on the project.
“Without these works the cliff itself is at long-term risk as well as the adjoining communities and the terminal.”