Biodiversity takes off at London's Heathrow airportJuly 2015
George Davies, head of environmental strategy and assessment, Heathrow, talks to Ethical Performance about the crucial role he and his team play in keeping the airport safe
You’d think that with the noise of the planes and the number of human beings at an airport, wildlife would be in short supply at one of the world’s biggest airports. But you’d be surprised: Heathrow is teeming with both travelers and wildlife.
George Davies, head of environmental strategy and assessment, says that what’s a particular achievement is the variety of species the land is now attracting with the area - over 100 hectares - now boasting an established population of stoats. “As a predator, having this mammal present reflects how strong the ecology of the area has. It’s a very good indicator of biodiversity,” he says.
This year the airport has counted a record number of moths as well as a number of rare and notable species such as: Bee Orchids, Cetti’s Warblers and Nathusius’ Pipistrelle Bats.
The airport has recently won its Biodiversity Benchmark Award for the 7th year running too, in recognition of the sustainable management of its land and the four reserve areas open for local people to enjoy, as well as the protection of over 2,000 species of flora and fauna on its grounds.??
“Winning the award shows we’re doing the right thing,” said Davies. “We’re proactively managing the green spaces and the benchmark is not easy to get. They raise the bar year on year.”
The airport’s success is not only restricted to the furry, scaly or feathery: Heathrow also holds the last known wild population of Water Avens, a flowering plant with a distinctive purple colour, in Greater London. In addition, following on a successful trial last year, Heathrow has extended its wildflower planting areas this year, a move which will not only promote further biodiversity at the airport, and a visual treat to passengers, but also reduce the risk of bird strikes and increase safety.
Davies emphasizes that it’s important to maintain a balance across the sites because it’s important for the safety of the airport. For example, it’s not in the airport’s best interests to cultivate any bird populations. “Birds and aviation are not a good combination. We have a very clear policy of what is possible and what isn’t when it comes to creating wildlife habitats.”
Managing the green spaces at Heathrow is also primarily about safety. “It’s about maintaining the accessibility of the footpaths that cross the airport’s land as well as maintaining the perimeter fence. It’s also about managing invasive species – for example Japanese knotweed – and removing it,” Davies points out.
A lot of Davies’ time currently is focused on the sustainability aspects of the airport’s expansion proposals. While some may consider the expansion to be a rather negative environmental move, Davies believes that the proposed plan gives the airport a huge opportunity to enhance the green spaces it currently manages.
While the area Heathrow manages and owns is large, a lot of it is quite fragmented, explains Davies. Part of the new proposals have identified a corridor of green spaces that they could link. “It would be the equivalent of linking four Hyde Parks where people could walk, cycle and ride horses,” he said. The development of open water swimming pools have also been mooted as a possibility.
Water features on Davies’ agenda too. “We are reliant on an airfield free of water,” he explains. Drainage is therefore key and keeping water clean has resulted in thriving biodiversity in all three of the airport’s water catchment areas. These are to the south, former gravel extraction sites, to the west with the River Colne and to the east with the River Crane.
“We are an integral part of the environment and take our responsibilities seriously, monitoring pollution risks and supporting habitats,” Davies emphasised.
A good example of what the team at Heathrow has done is Fowles Yard, which was a former flood meadow turned concrete and aggregate storage site. This has now been returned to nature. It’s located to the west of the airport, around 500m from Terminal 5 and is open to the public – and once again now a meadow.
Davies and the team at Heathrow work collaboratively with local communities. “We use a lot of volunteers to do surveys of the land. One group we work with is the friends of the River Crane, a group of highly motivated individuals who we talk to them on a regular basis. This stretch of river is managed in line with their objectives. Water quality is very important for a semi-urban water course,” he explains.
Heathrow is also a founding supporter of the Colne Valley Park Community Interest Company, providing valuable habitats for protected wildlife as well as important community facilities. Heathrow’s work also involves encouraging community volunteering and environmental education.
While nothing is confirmed with regards to the airport’s expansion plans, it’s clear that Davies and the Heathrow team would be keen to establish another regional park if they could. A government announcement is expected later this year.
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