Monday, March 05, 2012

Keep off the grass

GREAT GRASS: Grounds and wildlife planner Peter Robinson among the grass that keeps birds away from the airport runway.

High-tech grass at Auckland Airport could help solve the billion-dollar worldwide problem of wayward birds crashing into passenger planes.

The grass contains high levels of a symbiotic fungus that's unpleasant for birds and insects.

It's been developed by AgResearch and marketed under the brand name Avanex by PGG Wrightsons Turf.

"When the grass gets mown it starts to stimulate it more and more which makes it more and more repellent to insects and birds," airport grounds and wildlife planner Peter Robinson says.

It repels birds that eat insects since there's no food for them and those that eat grass or seeds because it's unpalatable.

The development is exciting for airports across the globe, he says.

"The damage to the industry is in the billions of dollars worldwide. If one of the big jet engines gets a medium-sized bird in it, there's the potential to do damage up to $50 million."

The drought-resistant grass is making big impact at the airport with the finch population down from an average of 300 birds on one day in 2011 to 185 this year. And that number could have been up to 100 birds lower had the grass been mown earlier, Mr Robinson says.

"It makes everything safer. It means we don't have to go and dump insecticide on everything. It's winning in so many ways, including costs."

The grass now covers 270,000 of the airport's 1.9 million square metres.

The airport plans to expand its coverage in certain areas, like the ends of the runway, with completion due in about five years.

But it isn't appropriate for all areas, like the airport's Wiroa Island bird sanctuary in the south or Renton Rd site to the north, Mr Robinson says.

Both are already effective in keeping large numbers of birds away from the runway.

"The birds need somewhere to stay. They are areas for the birds to sit and be safe.

"We own the land so can do a lot of things other airports would love to do. It's about keeping people safe."

There are between 1.9 to 3.1 bird strikes for every 10,000 aircraft movements each quarter at the airport.

Mr Robinson hopes the introduction of initiatives like Avanex will bring that down further.

"The grass is a little piece of a whole management strategy.

"We've got to the point where, without high-tech things, we're down as far as we can go. Now we can take it to a new level."

Finches, starlings and skylarks are the three main species airport staff keep an eye on – that gives them an idea of what's going on with the entire bird population, Mr Robinson says

PGG Wrightsons turf sales and marketing manager George Tothill says Avanex was initially bred with low levels of fungus for cattle and sheep.

"But they also found some were very, very toxic. It was put on a shelf and they thought: `Whatever are we going to do with this'?"

That was until AgResearch scientist Chris Pennell, who is also a pilot, figured out it would be effective at places like airports.

"It's innovative thinking, that's for sure," Mr Tothill says. 

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