What Fireworks and Bonfires really mean for Wildlife
It is getting to that time of year again when you can expect fireworks nearly every weekend. First there is Halloween, then Bonfire night, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and for some reason in-between as well. There is no question that the noise, not just the big bangs but the whistles and showers, can affect our pets, sending dogs barking hysterically or cowering behind furniture. They are inside the home and protected, even if they do not know it, but what about the wildlife outside where there is no escape?
Well that’s just what they try to do – escape. Except there is nowhere to go and often in a frenzied panic many animals end up extremely stressed, injured or dead. Mammals will flee due to the noise caused by the fireworks, often leading deer running across roads putting drivers’ lives at risk, or some mammals may tragically fall into ponds as they scurry to escape and may not able to get out (all the more reason to create a wildlife friendly pond with a sloped area for animals to get back onto land if they should fall in). Birds will take flight from their roosts and may fly into windows, as they too are panicked and confused. A study by Shamoun-Baranes et al (2011), concerning New Year’s Eve fireworks in the Netherlands, recorded birds taking flight in their thousands and continuing high flight for around 45 minutes. These birds were clearly disturbed and stressed by the fireworks, with wetland areas and nature reserves being especially sensitive areas due to the large number of birds that gather there. The use of illegal fireworks on New Year’s Eve was also blamed for the unexplained death of thousands of red-winged blackbirds in an Arkansas town in 2011, although this has not been completely proven.
A review of studies concerning noise effect on wildlife, conducted by Shannon et al (2015), found that wildlife behaviour was affected with fewer animal numbers found in noisy areas; an alteration in foraging and vigilance behaviour; as well as ecological structures being affected. Although this study was not directly related to fireworks it highlights the threats from noise to wildlife, with noise being one of the main problems caused by fireworks.
Bonfires are also an issue for our wildlife, with the threat being greatest to the hedgehog. As the weather gets colder and food sources disappear in November hedgehogs are looking for hibernation sites and what better than a lovely pile of wood and leaves, although they do not know of the horror to follow. These poor hedgehogs, who have chosen what they think to be a rather lovely hotel, will suffer agonising injury or death once the bonfire is lit. This is why the British Hedgehog Preservation Society urges people to only build their bonfires on the day it is to be lit, and to also check that there are no hedgehogs snuggled in what they believe to be a cosy pile of leaves. If a hedgehog is found they provide details of what to do on their website, link below (BHPS, n.d.). Other animals, such as amphibians, could also take refuge in a pile of woody debris, so checking carefully with a torch is very important.
It is not just the events themselves that could be damaging but the debris and litter left behind by the fireworks and bonfires. Some firework litter may have chemicals remaining which could pollute areas, some may cause physical damage to wildlife and bonfires can remain hot for sometime after burning, all threatening the wildlife in these areas.
However, it is not being said here that you cannot enjoy firework displays or even have one of your own, as it has been suggested that fireworks can be likened to a thunderstorm, a natural event which wildlife has to deal with. It is however saying that by being sensible and thinking before having a firework display or bonfire you should follow simple steps to minimise the impact on wildlife. Do not have fireworks in areas where large amounts of birds may be, such as nature reserves or roosting sites, you may even be breaking the Wildlife and Countryside Act as it is an offence to disturb nesting Schedule 1 species; put fireworks in an open area not near trees or bushes where wildlife may be sheltering; construct your bonfire on the day of use and check for wildlife hiding inside; make sure your bonfire is put out correctly; dispose of all waste; and try to only have fireworks on the main celebratory dates of the year, therefore reducing disturbance. Or better still why not go to an organised event with none of the hassle, or just stay in and try to comfort the dog.
BHPS. (n.d.) Bonfires Built in Advance are Hedgehog Hotels [www document]. www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/?action=viewArticle&articleId=7 (Assessed 28/10/2015).
Shamoun-Baranes, J., Dokter, A., van Gasteren, H., van Loon, E., Leijnse, H. and Bouten, W. (2011) ‘Birds flee en mass from New Year’s Eve fireworks’, Behavioural Ecology, 22, (6), 1173-1177.
Shannon, G., McKenna, M., Angeloni, L., Crooks, K., Fristrup, K., Brown, E., Warner, K., Nelson, M., White, C., Briggs, J., McFarland, S. and Wittemyer, G. (2015) ‘A synthesis of two decades of research documenting the effects of noise on wildlife’, Biological Reviews, DOI: 10.1111/brv.12207.
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