Farming feature: Dangers posed by Chinese lanterns and their cargo of fire and wire
Chinese lanterns have been a burning issue for farmers and landowners for some while and many want to see them banned. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to some in the wake of this week’s devastating fire at Smethwick
It’s ironic, says wedding venue owner and farmer Duncan Clark, that it took a catastrophic fire in a recycling plant this week for Government to sit up and take notice of the threat posed by Chinese lanterns.
For years, farmers have complained about the risk they pose, both to their livestock who unwittingly ingest them, wire and all, and to their crops, which, on a tinder-dry day can and sometimes do catch fire when a lighted object lands on them.
These pretty, magical, paper objects can float relatively long distances through the air bearing a potentially deadly cargo of fire and wire.
This week, that was illustrated to devastating effect when fire ripped through a recycling plant at Smethwick, near Birmingham, at an estimated cost of £6million.
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Investigators have established that a lantern – captured on CCTV falling on to the site – was to blame for the blaze, which was tackled by 200 firefighters.
Livestock and arable farmers, as well as other landowners and wildlife groups, have been concerned about the use of Chinese lanterns for some time, both because of fire risk and because of the potential danger to animals.
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The Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers’ Union want a ban on the lanterns and have done for some while because of both threats.
Duncan Clark, of Braxted Park Estate, near Witham, certainly favours such a ban. The farmer, who also runs a wedding venue, watched in horror about five years ago as a paper lantern landed on the roof of his old Georgian home. His staff managed to climb up and sweep it to the ground but he believes that it posed a real threat to the building. He has banned the lanterns at his venue, and is now convinced, despite some initial worries, it is not a deal-breaker and that other venues should follow suit.
“We put a blanket ban in because I’m a farmer and I could see quite easily what would happen if they landed in a wheat field. We do have some cattle on our farm and we do make hay and the great danger is they fall in the hay field and they get bundled up in the hay,” he said. The measure was a “no-brainer”, he says.
“What’s ironic is that nobody listens to farmers for five years,” he says. “This incident was just waiting to happen.”
Duncan’s views are echoed by Nicola Currie, eastern region director of the CLA, who described the incident in the Midlands as “an accident waiting to happen”. She wants other event organisers to follow Braxted Park’s lead in banning their use altogether.
“The CLA is obviously going to be talking to government about them again. The public has now had a very good illustration of how dangerous these lanterns are so it’s a good time to ask them to stop using them,” she said.
Farmer Jonny Fuller, who keeps a herd of 100 Longhorns at Spinney Abbey Farm at Wicken, between Newmarket and Ely, also supports a ban. One of his cows died three weeks after giving birth, after ingesting what’s thought to be a Chinese lantern.
“She became really aggressive and three weeks later she dropped dead out of the blue,” he said. “This wire had gone through her stomach lining into her lungs.” The result was gangrene and a painful death.
Mark and Zena Mayhew keep cattle around Sizewell, Walberswick, Thorrington and Halesworth as well as a few sheep said they are always finding remains on lanterns on the fields where they graze and promptly remove them.
“Last year we lost a cow at Sizewell,” said Zena. “She was not very old and had a calf on her. I found her dead on a marsh completely blow up, her eyes were wide open. It was not a nice sight. The other girls and calves had gathered around her, knowing that there was something wrong and all came to meet me at the gates, and then ran back to where she was.
“I was understandably very upset, but having looked around I found the remains of a lantern. She was collected by the knackerman. We know them and asked if when they disposed of her could they cut her open and find out why she died.
“She had eaten a part of a lantern which had managed to cause damage on the way down and to her stomach. It stopped her chewing her cud and she could not regurgitate the wire, causing her to blow up like a drum. This could not have been a nice death.”
She added: “I cannot for any reason see why people would want to set something on fire then let it go.”
Suffolk Young Farmers county chairman John Dickson said: “It is a shame that it takes setting light to a waste plastic plant to bring about how unnecessary Chinese lanterns are when sheep and cattle have been dying for years due to the wires in them getting into feed stuffs such as silage and other forages.
“I hope all this publicity doesn’t raise the popularity of them this summer as I can see several field fires resulting from the especially if we have a dry summer.”
Vijith Randeniya, chief fire officer of West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service, this week said it was time that “sensible people have a sensible discussion” about the issue following the fire.
A Government spokesman said the cause of the Smethwick fire would be thoroughly investigated by West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority.
“The Government is working to raise public awareness of the risks of sky lanterns, and users of these products are advised to follow carefully the manufacturers instructions – in the last year only a tiny percentage ( 0.2%) of all outdoor fires were sky lantern related – none of which caused substantial damage,” he said.
But the CLA’s Mrs Currie said the suggested solution of ‘responsible use’ has gone up in smoke at Smethwick.
“It is to be hoped that now the public will fully understand the risks and stop using them and that DEFRA will make this their recommendation as well,” she said.
NFU rural surveyor Louise Staples said: “Our members know how dangerous these lanterns can be. They can harm or kill farm animals by ingesting a wire frame in chopped grass and there is the fire risk to standing and stored crops, to buildings and they can cause wild fires on moorland.”
The Chief Fire Officers’ Association has called for an urgent review of Chinese lanterns.