The Ministry of Defence came under fire yesterday after one of its latest attack helicopters buzzed over a protected nature reserve.
Onlookers said that hundreds of migratory birds were spooked as the Wildcat carried out a series of low-level manoeuvres over the nationally-important sanctuary.
Wildlife photographer Robin Morrison watched anxiously as the chopper hovered and swooped over the sensitive wintering site for around 25 minutes – coming in as low as 20 feet, it was claimed.
Concerned conservationists said military helicopters usually bypass, or fly high above, the reserve, at Catcott Lows on the Somerset Levels.
But they are to complain to defence chiefs after the incident at midday on Monday.
The reserve, owned by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, is regarded as a nationally-important site for wintering and passaging birds. It is currently home to large populations of ducks – wigeon, teals, mallards and snipe – as well as a rare Whooper swan from Iceland.
Mr Morrison, 52, said: “Clearly birds and aircraft do not normally mix and flying right into a reserve packed with winter resident ducks is not a very good idea. The helicopter was making repeated swoops and hovering over the site for more than 20 minutes. This disturbed most of the ducks and other wildfowl, who immediately took to the air to try and escape from this aerial predator. This is a densely populated area of birdlife and the pilot must have seen all the birds taking to the air but he seemed to just carry on.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before – the helicopter usually make a single pass and then goes away.”
The Wildcat AH1 helicopter in question – built by AgustaWestland in nearby Yeovil and due to become operational for the Army next year – is believed to belong to the Army Air Corps based at the Yeovilton air base only a few miles away.
Mark Blake, of the Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: “We have written to the military in the past about this sort of thing and I’ll certainly be contacting them again. I hope this was a one-off – if it happened frequently it would be devastating for the reserve. It would have been very disturbing for the birds – almost as if a giant bird of prey had arrived – but thankfully none of them were hurt.”
Brian Hill, president of the Somerset Ornithological Society, said: “We are very concerned at this. Generally the helicopters fly at some height above the reserve and I’m quite sure that in time we will be making representations.”
Vice-president David Ballance added: “They should not be doing this over the reserve. Apart from the impact on the birds, it also poses a danger to the pilots themselves. Sending thousands of birds into the air around a helicopter is not a very good idea.”
Catcott Lows – under the shadow of legendary Glastonbury Tor – is an important wildfowl sanctuary with hides dotted around the reserve for birdwatchers. During the autumn and winter months it is also home to lapwings, golden plovers, marsh harriers and less common breeds such as Bewick’s swans.
Rarer birds such as Temminck’s stint and spoonbill have been recorded in recent years, as well as siskin, redpoll and brambling. The spring migration sees garganey, ruff, yellow wagtail and whimbrel regularly using the site to stop over and feed, while lapwing and redshank nest there.
The Wildcat helicopter, only recently unveiled, is an improved version of the Super Lynx military helicopter.
It will serve in battlefield utility, search and rescue and anti-surface warfare roles and is set to enter service with the Royal Navy in 2015.
A spokesman for Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton confirmed that the new Wildcat helicopters were flying from the base. But they said they would wait until they received a complaint before investigating the alleged low-flying alert over the sanctuary.
He added that there was a convention that aircraft did not fly below 200ft over the reserve, although it was not designated an official avoidance area.
And he said: “We cannot zig-zag around the countryside.”