Sodexo’s horticultural services business has successfully assisted in reducing the risk of bird strikes at RAF Marham using bespoke grass seed.

With around a third of the reported bird strikes each year in the UK leading to significant damage to aircraft and lost flying time, this is a serious safety and cost issue for the RAF.

It is a problem that airfields around the world suffer from with defra’s, Food and Environment Research Agency reporting that between 1912 to 2008 there were 56 fatal bird strike accidents resulting in the death of 262 people and the destruction of 103 aircraft. 80% of accidents to airliners are engine ingestion, often due to flocks of gulls.

Sodexo took over the grounds maintenance contract for the RAF’s six main operating bases in 2009 and immediately undertook a proactive airfield habitat survey at each station. Marham, one of the largest airfields in the country at 315 hectares was quickly identified as requiring a detailed study due to rising bird numbers and apparent problems with the quality of the grass.

A further study discovered not only problems with the quality of the grass being weak but also an infestation of chafer grub which was damaging the grass and attracting further bird activity.

The most effective method of airfield habitat management is using the long grass regime which has been adopted by the majority of RAF and civilian airfields across the world. This requires the grass to be maintained at a minimum length of 150mm to 200mm as at this length birds are unable find insects and seeds easily, and cannot see predators approaching when at rest.

The only solution was to completely replace the grass at the airfield so Sodexo implemented a plan which could be carried out whilst the base remained fully operational and would minimise the risk to aircraft from bird strike during this time.

The entire airfield was sprayed twice to ensure all existing weed grasses were killed and germinating weed seeds removed. The next step was to reseed. To ensure the best seed was used Sodexo worked with Grass Engineering to formulate a specific cultivar mixture to meet the site requirements at RAF Marham.

The challenge continued as Sodexo needed to drill the seed in without opening the soil structure too much as it would encourage bird activity, Sodexo used the largest specially selected seed drill available in the country to do this.

In order to reduce bird activity as soon as possible a percentage of the seed formulation was specifically selected as fast growing that would only last for the first season, this also created protection for the slower developing species which provides the upright growth.

James Lloyd, Regional Director for Sodexo’s horticultural services business said: “We are extremely pleased with the outcome, we have been monitoring the situation closely at Marnham and statistics are already showing the bird activity has reduced following the airfield renovation. As the grasses mature the station is seeing further reductions in bird activity, along with other bird reduction measures this has lead to greatly improved flight safety.”

The renovated airfield is also providing environmental benefits with an evaluation showing that the new grass is increasing C02 absorption and due to the slower growing nature of the new grass requiring less cutting and producing significantly less clippings, maintenance costs are being reduced.

Following the success at RAF Marham, Sodexo has also completed the renovation of RAF Coningsby as a similar project for Deputy Commander Royal Engineers, DCRE and are advising on similar issues on a number of Ministry of Defence and civil airfields throughout the UK.

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