Environmental concerns prompt sky lantern ban

Following concerns raised last winter by councillors, Winchester City Council last week adopted a new policy banning the release of sky lanterns and massed balloon launches from its land.

In recent years, the use of sky lanterns has become increasingly popular for night-time celebrations such as Bonfire Night and New Year’s Eve. Consisting of a paper-covered wire or bamboo frame, under which a small fuel supply with a naked flame is placed, they can be used purely as decoration along a path or hanging from tree branches, but some versions can also be launched into the sky. Once launched, they float – according to some websites – up to a height of 1,000 feet and travel for several miles. They travel on the wind and land when the flame dies out.

Although lanterns are said to be biodegradable, people can be concerned about their potential to cause damage to buildings, livestock and natural habitats. Both Defra and the Welsh Government have reviewed evidence and concluded that the sky lanterns pose a significant fire risk, and indeed firefighters rushed to Winchester Cathedral in 2006 when one lantern landed on the roof. There was concern about the old wooden structure of the building, and a sweep had to be carried out for other lanterns. In rural areas, the lanterns can start fires which destroy habitats and set animal housing, feed and bedding alight.

The frames can also become chopped up with hay and eaten by livestock leading to stomach ruptures. The RSPCA website quotes ingestion, entanglement, puncturing and entrapment as three threats to animal wellbeing, often leading to injury, suffering and death. The National Farmers’ Union website calls for a complete ban.

The Civil Aviation Authority has recommended that lanterns are not launched without prior notification of any nearby airfield, through concerns about the potential distraction of pilots. There are also concerns for coastal shipping, should lanterns be mistaken for distress flares.
Hampshire County Council banned the launching of sky lanterns from its land and property in September 2014.

At the same time, the Council decided that there was a strong case for banning mass balloon releases from its land, in view of the long-established risks presented to grazing animals and wildlife by the latex (and strings) when they land. The RSPCA, Defra and other bodies have all published information about the health risks to animals and the environment.

The new policy covers City Council-owned land such as playing fields, recreation grounds and open spaces, tenanted homes and gardens, and commercial sites including industrial premises and shops.

The Council’s licences and commercial tenancy agreements will be amended, on a rolling basis, to reflect the new policy and it will also be set out in the Tenant Handbook when it is next printed.

Cllr Frank Pearson, Portfolio Holder for Environment, Health and Wellbeing, commented:

I have had universal support from officers and fellow councillors alike in developing this new policy. The Winchester District includes large areas of countryside, where something as simple as a sky lantern can create anxiety at the least and lasting damage at worst.

We would strongly urge people who are starting to plan celebrations over the coming months to consider the safety concerns and the litter nuisance associated with sky lanterns and balloon launches, and to avoid these completely. There are lots of other ways to create atmospheric outdoor celebrations, from tethered balloons and lanterns to bubbles, lights and bunting.