Norfolk warnings over Chinese lanterns

They may look appealing as they float across the night sky, but farmers, firefighters and coastguards are warning of the dangers of Chinese lanterns. Environment correspondent JON WELCH reports.

They have become a hugely popular way to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, Bonfire Night and New Year, and thousands are expected to be released this weekend to mark the Chinese New Year.

But farmers are urging people not to set off Chinese lanterns, which they say can damage livestock and crops, and firefighters and the Marine and Coastguard Agency are also advising caution. The lanterns are also responsible for a large number of UFO reports.

The National Farmers' Union has warned that the paper lanterns, which are carried into the sky by hot air from fuel blocks lit inside them, can drift for miles, injuring and even killing livestock, littering the countryside and starting serious fires in the countryside.

The NFU has is asked people celebrating the start of the Year of the Rabbit not to release the lanterns, which can harm livestock

when the metal wires are ingested – sometimes after they have been cut up during silage and hay making – or when they become tangled around an animal's feet or embedded in its skin.

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NFU director of communications Erika Coghlan said: 'Chinese New Year is one of the most vibrant and colourful events in the calendar and thousands of people will want to take part.

'However, we really hope that people will think twice about releasing Chinese lanterns because they can cause cattle deaths and serious fires, as well as being a litter nuisance.'

Tom Crawford, who farms 1,200 acres at Topcroft, near Bungay, and has 170 milking cows, said the lanterns were a real problem and had injured one of his animals.

'This November the farm was suddenly littered with them. Someone had obviously had a huge party,' he said.

'I collected about 15 of them and saw two or three more lying around. I first noticed them because they were draped over the hedgerows. They were strewn over half-a-mile or so.

'I had a cow get its feet stuck in one of the wires and she was really quite badly injured. The wire acted almost like a cheesewire.

'I spent quite a lot of money on drugs for her, and for a while it looked like she might have to be put down. It took seven or eight weeks before she was ok.

'They are a downright danger to the farming industry. If you have a thatched house or it's harvest time, they are a fire risk.'

Mr Crawford said he was also concerned about the possibility of his animals eating chopped-up lengths of wire in silage. He said he had made his herd swallow magnets which lodge in the first of their four stomachs, catching any metal objects in their food and reducing the risk of injury from the objects passing through their bodies.

Area manager Stuart Horth, of Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, said: 'We have no evidence so far of a lantern causing a serious fire in Norfolk but there is an obvious potential danger, especially in a county like ours with many thatched properties, standing crops, haystacks etc.

'The aim may be for the lantern to go skywards but there is always the risk of the wind taking it sideways so I would ask people to please be careful and vigilant.'

Marine and Coastguard Agency spokesman Mark Clark said the lanterns were often mistaken for distress flares, diverting resources away from genuine emergencies. Of 1,500 flare incidents reported to coastguards last year, he said 500 were believed to be caused by lanterns.

'This is an endemic problem across the UK, including East Anglia,' he said.

'We would hate to be seen as the nanny state. We would prefer if people didn't release Chinese lanterns at all, but if you are intending to let them off anywhere near the coast, please let us know so we can discount any sightings.'

Graham Kerrison, joint managing director of Kerrisons Toys, which has stores in Norwich and Great Yarmouth, said the company had sold a lot of Chinese lanterns, but had stopped stocking them last summer because of safety concerns.

'Most retailers are responsible, and while the dangers might be exaggerated a bit, it's not a chance you take,' he said.

'People first started asking for them a couple of years ago. They have been very popular throughout the year, for events like birthdays and barbecues, and especially at Bonfire Night and New Year.

'But we won't be stocking them again until we are able to get hold of the biodegradable lanterns.'