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DIO initiates Chinook helicopter operation to help enhance wildlife habitat  

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Armed Forces, Environment and Ecology, Wildlife
A Chinook hovers over a barge holding large bags of aggregate.
Royal Air Force Chinooks from 28 Sqn RAF Benson deliver aggregate underslung onto Pewit Island in the Portmouth Harbour. [Crown Copyright MOD 2021]

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to be in Portsmouth Harbour to witness the culmination of three years of work on an unusual project.    

I’m DIO’s Principal Ecologist, which means I lead a team responsible for managing the habitats and species on MOD land, and also for supporting defence infrastructure works and training activities. It’s hugely varied and can be challenging due to the size and diversity of the estate, both within the UK and also overseas, and the ever-evolving nature of both defence requirements and environmental law and policy. But is also very rewarding, with opportunities to work on really interesting projects with great people. A perfect example is this task helping Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust with a conservation project in Portsmouth Harbour.  

A haven for birds  

We’re working in the area on a complete rebuild of the Gosport Oil & Fuel Depot, which was first commissioned over a century ago. As part of the preparations we had to construct a new sea wall on intertidal habitats, with a large tracked piling machine operating on a timber mat to stop it sinking into the mudflats. We needed to mitigate for the unavoidable loss of intertidal habitat, and likely disturbance to wintering birds. Discussions with regulators identified a potential opportunity to help the Wildlife Trust restore and enhance Pewit Island, also in Portsmouth Harbour. 

The island, which used to be owned by the MOD, is now administered by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust as a restricted-access reserve. It attracts thousands of waterbirds over winter, and in the past was also a major nesting site in the summer. Unfortunately, it has suffered from disturbance, litter and scrub growth and is at risk from sea level rise. In 2018/19 we supported the Wildlife Trust in major restoration work and installing new signs, but the Trust also identified a potential major enhancement. If we could recreate a large shingle beach on the island it should attract breeding birds such as terns, gulls and possibly the Pewit - lapwings - for which the island is named. 

Working with the Wildlife Trust, we’ve tried various methods over the last few years. I first approached 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, part of the Royal Logistics Corps, to see if they could help. Their recce team couldn’t find a way to land due to the extensive mudflats, and we realised the only way to make it work was to use a helicopter to carry over the aggregate.   

Military help  

Fortunately, we’re the MOD so that wasn’t out of the question! I got in touch with Joint Helicopter Command to see if they could help. Arranging something like this is not quick or easy. To make it happen, we needed to co-ordinate the availability of soldiers from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment with the availability of both a Chinook helicopter and all the necessary air and ground crew from RAF Benson and RAF Odiham – as well as lots of supporting paperwork. Portsmouth is a busy waterway so we had to liaise with the Queen’s Harbour Master and Royal Navy staff to make sure everything was clear and safe, as well as working around the tides.   

It was a real collaborative effort from everyone involved. Day Aggregates and Tarmac very kindly provided the shingle for free, Chris Lycett from Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and I were on hand to make sure everything went smoothly, and our military colleagues did the hard work. The soldiers from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment got the aggregate on to a MEXEFLOTE raft to get it close to Pewit Island, then teams took it in turns to hook up the bags to the Chinook which flew them over to the island.  

A Chinook lowers large bags of aggregate on to the island.
Royal Air Force Chinooks from 28 Sqn RAF Benson deliver aggregate underslung onto Pewit Island in the Portmouth Harbour. [Crown Copyright MOD 2021]

For the military participants, this was a fantastic training opportunity, giving them the chance to work together, as they may have to do on operations, and practise vital skills while also doing something which will be a real benefit to the wildlife and people of Portsmouth Harbour.  

A number of people stand on Pewit Island with the shingle partially spread. The background is a vibrant blue sky.
Volunteers spreading the aggregate on Pewit Island. [Chris Hewitt, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, used with permission]

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