Are drones a hazard to wildlife or a friendly eye in the sky?
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Depending on who you talk to: drones are either the cause of harassment to wild creatures or useful tools in conservation work.
According to the UK Drone Users Report, produced by online retailer Drones Direct, the vast majority of people (around three-quarters) flying these gadgets do so to take video or photography footage. Incidentally, the report listed Suffolk as having the second highest per capita sales of drones in the UK.
And not everyone has had a positive experience.
Adrian Walters, a ranger at Sudbury Common Lands in west Suffolk, recently saw a red light hovering up and down over the meadows at dusk.
“Although I was fairly far away, I concluded that what I was watching was a drone,” he said.
“The effect of this flight was to disconcert and confuse the couple of thousand rooks and jackdaws that were coming in to roost in nearby Ballingdon Grove. All through the later autumn this was a truly wonderful spectacle to watch as each group of new arrivals was greeted with much noise and wheeling flights of birds.
Mr Walters continued: “However, on this occasion a large number of birds took flight away from the wood in confusion and disarray and the following evenings there were far fewer of them and they were very unsettled. Those that did come back went further back into the woods.”
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This isn’t the only example of irresponsible drone use to have been reported.
Last year, the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (Paw) issued guidance to drone users to avoid causing creatures stress after incidents where seals were disturbed at protected sites and reports of drones being used to film sea bird colonies as well as raptors, which have been known to attack drones and injure themselves and damage the equipment.
Breeding wild birds, dolphins, whales and seals are all protected from harassment or disturbance by law that can currently impose fines up to £5,000 or imprisonment for up to six months on those who break it.
Sergeant Brian Calver from the rural crime unit at Suffolk Police says he hasn’t come across any such offences on his patch yet, but acknowledges there’s a greater risk of misuse as the number of hobbyist users increase. It’s essential, he says, that people “do their homework and understand the laws relating to drone use before they start to fly them.”
The potential for danger and disturbance to both people and wildlife is acknowledged by conservation bodies working in the region. As a general principle, both the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and RSPB do not allow drone flying on their land, unless it is part of a recognised aerial survey and permission has been granted. This is due to the possibility that drones could disturb nesting birds, visitors and infringe on the privacy of neighbours.
However, both agencies do use drones to take a bird-eyes view of how habitat restoration projects are progressing. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust, for example, sometimes works with a volunteer who flies a drone over reserves such as Knettishall Heath and Carlton Marshes.
At the RSPB, head of GIS Services, Adrian Hughes, says the charity has around 20 trained drone users across the UK.
“We use them to map reserves and habitats using cameras on the drone and stitch the images together to create a mapping layer to monitor change,” he said.
Mr Hughes says there has been numerous studies on drones and their impact on wildlife.
“It does seem to be species-specific,” he said. “Depending on the species of bird, some are not scared of drones. It also depends on how the drone is flown - if it comes in from the side or drops down from above a bird may take the drone for a predator.”
Dr Tom August is a researcher at the Biological Records Centre based at Wallingford near Oxford. He spoke at the Suffolk Naturalist Society’s (SNS) conference last year about his work using drones to survey bats. He recently worked with a MSc student at the University of East Anglia to find out whether the presence of drones affects bat behaviour.
This is important, he says, one, because the findings will help to reduce bat disturbances and two, because any impact on the bat’s behaviour will skew the findings of any research. While he acknowledges more research is required, the project found that at a close proximity of under three metres drones do affect bat behaviour but beyond that they do not.
At UAV8, a drone training company near Ipswich, training director Barry Humphreys emphasises the importance of training, as there is a greater focus on the actions of drone users than ever before.
And in responsible hands drones can offer many benefits to people working with wildlife, he says
Mr Humphreys says the firm has worked with users who employ drones to survey seal colonies off Blakeney Point in Norfolk, as well as people who use thermal cameras attached to drones to count deer numbers.
He said: “Deers can cover a vast area and traditionally deer counters have used binoculars on the ground to make estimates of numbers. With a drone you can see exact numbers - it’s not an estimate anymore.”