Chinese lanterns: Tranquillity masks a threat

Chinese lantern at the Glastonbury festival Some 200,000 Chinese lanterns are thought to be unleashed in the UK each summer

Chinese lanterns have brightened up Britain's summer evenings, but have left a coalition of farmers, coastguards and animal lovers furious. Why?

As they float up gently into the night, illuminating the warm skies, it's hard to imagine anything less likely to provoke anger and offence.

Chinese lanterns are cheap, easy to use and, above all, pretty to look at - and over the last decade they have become an increasingly popular sight at weddings, music festivals and even funerals.

The lanterns - effectively, mini-hot air balloons composed of flame, paper and wire - cost as little as £2 each and can travel as far as 30 miles, carried upwards by the heat until they burn out and fall to earth. En route, they glow in the air like Pimms in a Glyndebourne-goer's cheeks.

Only sporadically seen on these shores a decade previously, an estimated 200,000 are now believed to be released each summer across the UK.

But as they drift above the midsummer landscape, not everyone is pleased to see them. Far from it.

Calls for a ban have been circulating, questions have been asked in the House of Commons - parried by the deputy prime minister, no less - and no less an authority than the Marine and Coastguard Agency has warned of their dangers.

What harm could these serenely glowing vessels possibly pose?

According to Britain's agricultural community, a great deal. Citing a surge in livestock killed by eating wire from degraded lanterns which were accidentally picked up by harvest machinery and put into winter feed, the National Farmers Union wants them banned.

The RSPCA has warned that the wire could cause "extreme discomfort" to cattle if ingested. Moreover, arable producers warn that dry, hot fields of crops can be ignited by lanterns.

The problem has become so acute that members of the Women's Food and Farming Union in north-east Wales have staged regular "lantern patrols". Members have also been collecting evidence to send to the government in order to obtain a ban.

Start Quote

Jane Treherne

I know that they look nice, but we just can't afford to lose that much livestock”

End Quote Jane Treherne Farmer

One country-dweller who has come to dread the twinkling lights is Jane Treherne, 55, who has farmed 450 acres just outside Northampton with her husband for 31 years.

In a one-month period between February and March the couple say they lost four cattle worth £1,000 each after their feed, harvested the previous summer, became contaminated with lantern wire.

At the peak of lantern season, she says, it is not uncommon to find 10 scattered across her land in a single day.

"I know that they look nice, but we just can't afford to lose that much livestock in a single month."

"It's become a major problem for farmers across the country at a time when money is tight enough as it is. I really think they should be banned."

And it is not only in the countryside that they are encountering hostility. Coastguards warn the lanterns are easily confused with distress flares and have led to an increasing number of unnecessary call-outs as they have become more popular.

According to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, there were nine "incidents caused by Chinese lanterns" in 2007, 49 in 2008 and 347 in 2009. They have also been blamed for a flurry of UFO sightings.

Chinese lantern The industry is introducing biodegradable lanterns

Chinese lanterns have, of course, been around for a long time. Invented in third-century China, they became a symbol of good wishes and used to celebrate special occasions.

Their popularity in the UK is more recent, however, and has been traced to the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombs, when they were released to pay tribute to the 182 dead.

One politician who has taken up the cause of those aggrieved by lanterns is Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for South Norfolk, who brought the issue to national attention when he raised it at prime minister's questions.

Nick Clegg, standing in for David Cameron, told the Commons that the issue was the source of "a great deal of distress to both farmers and their livestock".

Mr Bacon says he was alerted to the issue by a farmer in his constituency who produced the mangled wreckage of a lantern and invited him to imagine what sort of damage it could cause to his cattle. While the MP - like the government - stops short of echoing the NFU's call for an outright ban, he would like to see the built entirely from biodegradable material.

"No-one wants to be a killjoy, but there has to be an alternative solution," he says.

Indeed, Britain's fledgling Chinese lantern industry insists it is keen to address critics' concerns. Louise Williams of Essex-based Sky Lanterns says her company is going over to an entirely wire-free, biodegradable model fashioned from mulberry paper and a "completely digestible" bamboo rim which burns out before it reaches the ground.

She also urges all lantern-users to alert coastguards before they set them off near the sea - a call echoed by the MCA - but Ms Williams says it would be a tragedy if her product was banned before its teething problems were ironed out.

"We're learning all the time because they're a fairly new product in this country," she admits. "But it would be a shame if we lost them altogether - they create such an atmosphere.

"They're popular at weddings and funerals alike because they can be beautiful in a cheerful kind of way or awesome in a subtle kind of way. It's like a thought being sent up to the heavens."

Britain's farmers will be sending their own prayers skywards that her promise of improvements is borne out.

Below is a selection of your comments

Simple Solution, attach a long piece of string to base and tie down, then release, same beauty in the wind but when it burns out it will fall back to place of origin where it can be tidied up.

James, London

The bio degradeable versions should not be banned - they are a beautiful sight and give a lot of people much pleasure, for less than the price of a drink in a pub. In these times of recession and gloom, it would be a throwback to Puritan times to see these banned.

Boo Marshall, Norwich

It's not just farmers who have a problem. These incendiary bombs drop over oil refineries and chemical plants who go to great lengths to keep sources of ignition away from flammable storage. Then there are gasometers, petrol stations, thatched cottages and other places who would have no redress against these anonymous pyromaniacs.

Bob Connell, Barry, Wales

It's not just those groups that get annoyed-I stewarded at Glastonbury festival this year and we had to run patrols in order to make sure none were lit. Not only did we have the nearby problem of farms, but if they land on a tent/festival goer's head then there would be a lot of problems. They're great, but there is a certain amount of care that needs to be taken whilst letting them go off.

Abi, Bath

Sounds like a typical cop-out; just ban them and be done with it. Can't see they bring anything whatsoever myself. Would Ms Williams be happy if I spend my evenings throwing small incendiary devices into her garden?

Jamie, Durham

So we still haven't learned not to litter our countryside. These things give pleasure for scant moments, can people not do something else to entertain themselves? Who'd be an animal on this planet?

Sandra, Gloucester, England

A: It's litter, plain and simple. B: It's setting off an uncontrolled incendiary device. Yes, they're pretty, but even if the biodegradeable version is released, the lanterns can land before the flame has extinguished. This is an unacceptable risk to forests, crops and, especially in Essex, thatched cottages.

Ian, London

Trying to find a solution is quite easy, get the manufacturers/ importers to only get bio-degradable ones, as for incendiaries ? i'm sure that the fireworks that were until recently used instead of these cause more harm and damage than the lanterns - at least they're quiet.

Jon Ingle, Halifax

Airborne arson! legalised littering! Danger to aircraft especially rescue helicopters. Biodegradable? Bamboo lasts forever so thats a myth Does someone have to die before these pernicious objects are banned.

Ellie, Nottinghamshire

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