If anything ever goes wrong with our equipment, we're normally able to get out and get it sorted. But what happens when falcons nest right next door?
We monitor our network constantly to make sure it’s working as well as possible, and so that if ever something goes wrong with Vodafone equipment, we can get it fixed sharpish. But what if doing so would put local wildlife in danger? That’s exactly the problem our engineers faced earlier this year, when a Vodafone unit at Southampton University developed a fault, right next to a peregrine falcon nest.
Who you gonna call? The experts, of course…
A rare breed
Dr Rob Matthews, EMF Unit Manager at Vodafone, is our man with the inside knowledge on this pretty unique story, so we caught up with Rob to find out what went wrong and what happened next: “One of our masts was out of action at Southampton University – we have a site on top of a building there, which is 30 or 40 metres tall. We knew that the site had gone down, so we needed to get engineers on site to be able to repair it.
“At this particular site, there are antennas on the edge of the roof, and further back on the roof we had a cabin for all our equipment. It’s a well-used telecoms site, and the building itself covered the university campus and a mile radius around it. So it was a big area that was being left without coverage.”
Ok, so there’s a problem. Not to worry; these things happen, and we can fix that, right? Unfortunately, sometimes life’s just not that simple:
“An ecologist working at the university believed that a peregrine falcon was nesting at the rooftop, and that there were eggs in the nest too. That was an issue in terms of site access for our engineers, because it’s against the law to disturb peregrine falcons whilst they’re nesting.”
As Rob reveals, that made things difficult – people living in the area were getting understandably frustrated at the signal problems, but we couldn’t go up and get it sorted without utlising correctly licensed individuals using a process approved by Natural England. Worse still, the building with the nest was the only suitable place around for the equipment:
“The campus is in an elevated part of the town,” says Rob, “so we had difficulties in trying to find short-term replacement sites dotted around it. The difficulty with temporary sites is they require quite a lot of space, so it was too difficult to find a site nearby that would replicate the coverage.
“We were desperate to get onto the site to do the repairs, but we had to make sure that any process we used wouldn’t disturb the nesting falcons. We needed access to review the situation, so we spoke to Natural England to see what process we needed to follow. We spoke to several people in the area and ended up working alongside a local expert.”
Enter the expert
That expert happens to be Keith Betton, County bird recorder for Hampshire. We spoke to Keith to fill us in on the next part of the story…
“I’m one of only two people in Hampshire who have a license to approach peregrine falcon nests when they’re in use,” Keith says. “It’s actually an offense to go near a nest, and you can get fined £5,000 if the bird deserts the nest because of your actions. In my case, the license is recognition that I know what I’m doing; I’m not going to put the birds at risk and I know how to approach in a way that won’t over stress them.”
Peregrine falcons are a protected species, but the main reason for being so careful is that they can scare easily, and that can play havoc with their breeding, as Keith explains:
“If you approach them at all when they’re getting ready to lay and incubate eggs there’s a good chance that they’ll just give up and go somewhere else, thinking they’ve been discovered. They can re-lay, so they don’t worry about that, but they don’t want to be found later when they’ve got chicks.”
Thing is, the university and our team at Vodafone were all under the impression that the birds were right next to the equipment, and that held everything back. Keith came on board when the pressure was mounting to get things sorted, and managed to check things out properly within the confines of the law:
“I went up on the roof and had a look, and I found three eggs that I was pretty sure would have hatched within a week. The crucial thing was, though, was that they weren’t where we’d thought they were, and they weren’t that near Vodafone’s equipment, even though that’s what we’d been told in the first place.
“The nest was actually at the other end of the building. Even so, I advised Vodafone that we should wait a week or so to let the eggs hatch.”
Welcome to the world
The best bit? That’s exactly what happened: “I went up a short while after, saw the chicks, made sure they were ok and gave the go ahead for Vodafone’s engineers to go up. We had it all agreed with Natural England, and then the Vodafone engineers fixed the equipment.
“It could have been solved a bit earlier, but we weren’t to know. The good news,” Keith adds, “is that the chicks all hatched and are now flying around the campus.”
All’s well that ends well, then… Especially when it ends with welcoming in a new generation of an endangered species. The main thing that both Keith and Rob were keen to tell us, here, is that the birds living alongside network engineering was never the issue:
“Where you’ve got tall structures in urban environments, falcons to tend to nest in them,” says Dr Rob. “There was one in Charing Cross Hospital, for instance, where we had to install a bespoke walkway so that we could get to our kit without disturbing the birds.”
“There’s no reason why birds and operating equipment can’t coexist quite happily,” says Rob in closing. “We’ve had stories of birds nesting right inside masts before and that’s been fine.”
It’s not just birds… The situation at Southampton University was certainly unique, but it’s not the only thing that keeps our team on its toes. Click here to see the mountains, extreme weather and crazy buildings that continue to shake things up at Vodafone.
Images courtesy of Keith Betton & Richard Jacobs.