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Farming feature: The fierce guardians of our skies

PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 January 2014

Feature with Keith Mutton, Phoenix Bird Control, at RAF Lakenheath.

Feature with Keith Mutton, Phoenix Bird Control, at RAF Lakenheath.

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Keith Mutton's winged airbase sentinels are the last line of defence against potential multi-million dollar disaster for the American Air Force's UK-based fleet.

Operating out of sites which include RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall, his carefully-trained birds of prey patrol the runways with as much vigilance as the uniformed guards below, as SARAH CHAMBERS found out.

Feature with Keith Mutton, Phoenix Bird Control, at RAF Lakenheath.Feature with Keith Mutton, Phoenix Bird Control, at RAF Lakenheath.

Keith Mutton’s highly trained birds of prey are the unsung heroes of the US military.

They can be all that stands between its air force and potential disaster if a flock of birds should cross its airspace at the wrong moment.

Coming into land, the multi-million dollar craft which fly in and out of airbases such as Lakenheath and Mildenhall in Suffolk on a daily basis are vulnerable: a bird as small as a starling can be sucked into a turbine or crack a screen and the consequences can be extreme.

The mayhem caused is referred to on the bases as FOD. or Foreign Object Damage.

Flocking birds are a constant risk, and it’s the job of these remarkable birds and their owner to keep the runways clear.

Keith is the founder of Phoenix Bird Control Services, a highly specialist firm which hires out its services to businesses and organisations, including the American Air Force, which need to deter birds from congregating near their buildings or sites for a variety of practical reasons.

The firm provides the longest-running airfield bird of prey based bird control programme anywhere in the world on behalf of the United States Air Force. It’s also the only company employed by the United States Air Force to provide bird control on its UK bases.

Keith’s latest recruit is a four-month-old 10lb baby American bald eagle from the Welsh Hawking Centre in Wales. While she is out, getting used to the feel and sound of the airbase, she is hooded to avoid over-stimulation and enable her to adjust, but even as a youngster she towers above some of the falcons and other birds in this elite company. She has a wing space of seven foot and, as an important American national symbol, will eventually play a starring role at the airbases. She’s particularly symbolic here, as the base has been home to the F15e Strike Eagle aircraft for more than 20 years.

Her main job will be as a display bird, although she will undertake some deterrence work, thus her acclimatisation regime at Lakenheath airfield. Phoenix exhibits at sites including Centerparcs at Elveden, using the practical skills the birds hone on the runways to entertain the crowds.

“This is the first time she has been in the truck except today,” explains Keith. “She will be doing very limited bird control but she’s more of a display bird.”

When distinguished visitors come for a tour of the control tower, the new chick is likely to be in the line-up.

“She’s more like a bomber than a fighter. She will scare stuff naturally but things like crows are attracted to big birds- it’s called mobbing.

“It’s probably about three months before she does her first fly. I’m just going to let her settle. You can see they all get on. They have a lot of respect for each other, but you would not put them too close together. That’s just common sense. Because they are reared together, they are not taking any notice of this eagle at all.”

Control tower personnel alert Keith to any potential problems on the runway, as do ground staff, but he and his birds are in a constant state of vigilance anyway.

Keith’s wife, Jennifer, is a partner in the business but works behind the scenes. He has a 12-strong full-time workforce, including his daughter, Holly, his stepson Alan Marenghi, and his brother, John.

“I would say now it’s almost 50/50 on the bird control side,” he says.

The work can take the company far afield - the furthest so far being an airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

“There are roughly 50 birds between the bases but they fly for life. Some are having a rest at this time when they are all finishing malting and changing their feathers etc. We fly hawks in the aircraft hangars and around the building. They can nest in the hangars,” says Keith.

Birds including jackdaws, seagulls, rooks, geese, wood pigeons, feral pigeons and starlings are all potential threats to the type of aircraft landing and taking off from the bases, explains Keith.

“It’s like a giant hoover jet so it sucks up everything. So the runways are immaculate. It’s a sterile environment as much as you can. One little pebble sucked into the jets can destroy a million dollar turbine,” he says.

One stray bird can potentially hit the cockpit, or get stuck in the flaps, and that’s regardless of size, he says.

“The starling is nicknamed the flying bullet. It can punch a hole - even a small bird can - and the bigger the bird, the more impact, the more damage,” he adds.

Keith’s birds are trained to scare although they do catch things from time to time. They are taught to fly from a moving vehicle so as part of their acclimatisation they will become used to travelling in the vehicle. They must also become used to the loud noises they will hear as planes come in to land.

Even before they are hatched, the training begins. Kevin will begin to use the whistle while the eggs are still in the incubator at home.

“They hear the whistle and actually the egg talks back to you. It thinks it hears its mother. When it hatches, it can’t see for 10 days. When you feed it you hit the whistle and when it hears the whistle it realises there’s a bit of a reward,” he explains.

At home, the birds, which are kept in a fish tank, can hear the television and human voices around it so it becomes acclimatised to the sound and smell of people.

At 10 days old it can start to venture out onto the dashboard of the truck and see the aircraft.

“In a base airfield environment you can’t have a bird that’s nervous so it’s a really intense training. They are taught to fly in between the aircraft.

“The next stage is sitting on the dashboard and hearing the noise. Then they sit outside on the roof of the truck and basically the whole airfield becomes their territory,” he says.

Then one day, the bird takes off on its maiden flight - having learnt the skill by itself.

“When we let them go we are relying on the bond between the two of us. They learn to fly naturally,” he says. “It’s a little like when learning to ride a bike and they are a bit wobbly at first. For three weeks it has a radio transmitter on it and we let it do what it wants. In that period it will get fatter and fatter. At no point is it ever really hungry. You have to find its flying weight - the maximum strength at a certain weight. Once you find that, you will know because when you call it, it will respond immediately.”

The birds are never starved, but must feel a slight hunger in order to be ready to hunt.

“You are producing what it does in the wild. Falcons are very explosive, like lions or tigers. It’s high energy stuff. Sometimes they can fly throughout the day.

You have to have the bird under control because when they fly when they are working. They have fun when they are working, when there are no jets or it’s a weekend.”

Even when jets aren’t flying, the birds must fly every day to keep them fit and firm.

“You can never say at any time there will never be anything out there,” says Keith, whose watchword is vigilance.

The 26-year-old European Eagle Owl watches him with its bright orange eyes. The Night Owls is the nickname of the RAF Mildenhall-based 67th Special Operations Squadron, so its presence has a particular resonance there. Unlike the falcon, it is trained to Keith’s voice rather than the whistle and comes into its own in the darker hours. Birds such as lapwings and even geese can be semi-nocturnal so it’s impossible to be sure that there are no birds out there, even at night, making an owl ideal for evening duty. Each member of the team has its special talents - the Peregrine Falcon can dive at 200mph. Keith also has Harris Hawks, a Lugger (also known as Laggar) Falcon and a Lanner from Africa in the line-up.

And their “enemy” - the flocking birds - are not to be underestimated. The rooks are particularly clever birds. Keith has even noted pecularities of behaviour related to where they are based. At Mildenhall, they’ll break conkers on the runway, but they don’t do it at Lakenheath because they haven’t learnt how.

RAF Lakenheath is home to the Statue of Liberty Wing, or 48th Fighter Wing, making it the only USAF wing to have both an official number and an official name, so the presence of the birds seems particularly apt.

Keith has been coming to Lakenheath and Mildenhall for around 37 years. As a lad of 13, living in Brandon, he would come up and help out with the bird control, a fascination which remained into adulthood.

He took on his first falcon when just a youngster and also kept pigeons.

“I just had a general interest in birds and wildlife,” he explains. “I think I was about 16 It was the only job I wanted to fly birds as a young child. I didn’t know why. I told my headmistress that was what I wanted to do.”

He attending Brandon middle and then King Edward VII school in Bury St Edmunds and after leaving school worked in factories, but on the understanding he could work part-time and fly his birds in winter. He worked in partnership until the late 1980s, but for the past 15 years or so he has run his own business.

“A lot of the techniques we developed ourselves funnily enough. There’s general falconry and we adapted the birds to fly out of windows of the truck,” he says.

Keith and his team also use other methods such as pyrotechnics and acoustic techniques, mimicking the sound of a bird getting caught by a falcon, to support its work with the birds of prey team.

“It’s a distress system. You really have to use it in conjunction with the birds. It scares the other birds off. It’s part of a programme. We use the full range of methods,” says Keith.

“It’s different from a lot of places in the States. They use a lot of the acoustics and pyrotechnics and loud bangs but it’s one of the best records here so it (the birds of prey method) is very effective.”

“Obviously there are pest species and non pest species. You can’t touch a swallow’s nest for example. The idea is to make the airfield less attractive to birds. The slightly complicated thing here is Lakenheath is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a stone curlew breeds here so we have to work in conjunction with those restrictions.

“Normally there should be a lot of grass on here but because of the SSSI it’s really short.”

The short grass, used to help preserve the rare Spanish Catchfly, a native plant to which the base is home, is also attractive to flocking birds, where grass seven to 14 in tall acts as a natural deterrent because they can’t land in it.

“There’s a lot of bird activitiy in the local area. We have got the biggest forest in England (Thetford),” says Keith.

“Touch wood, it’s one of the lowest strike rates in the airforce at Lakenheath but it’s not an exact science. For example, I can’t stop a pigeon crossing the runway one side to the other but I can reduce the problem.”

Keith’s team might carry out 60 or 70 runway checks a day and his vehicles travel around 50/60,000 miles a year on the airfield, but there is never room for complacency.

“Things can change constantly. You are taking out the chances. If the tower spots birds they will tell us or if a pilot spots a bird, they’ll tell us.

Between us, we’ll pass it on. We work closely with airfield operations here who manage the airfield. That’s where we get our schedule every morning so we know when we have aircraft coming out and coming back. Obviously, like trains, they don’t always run on time. They (the birds) are aircraft aware because they are aircraft-reared and because they are made the way they are, we can call them in really quick.”

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