THOUSANDS of mobile users in Southampton could be without a signal for months – because a rare bird has made its nest on a phone mast.
Vodafone engineers trying to track a fault that has left people across the north of the city frustrated found a peregrine falcon squatting on the transmitter in the Highfield area.
They cannot repair it because strict wildlife laws ban them from disturbing the creature.
Bird experts have warned that it could be at least June before the fledglings leave the nest.
The Daily Echo is not revealing the exact location to safeguard the birds.
Now Vodafone is taking advice about what it can do to restore normal service to its customers.
Portswood, Bassett, Swaythling and Highfield are among the areas affected.
A Vodafone spokesman said he was unaware of this happening to any of its masts in the region before.
He added: “Falcons are a highly protected species we’re making sure that we’re very careful with how we proceed.
“We’ve been in contact with the RSPB and Natural England for advice and now need to have the site assessed by an accredited body as a priority.
“It does mean that at this point we cannot restore the signal on this single site until we have the right advice.
“We’ll then know what our options are. We’re already looking at alternative contingency plans and we’ll inform our customers as soon as we can.
“While this is inconvenient for our customers, it is great news that the falcons are nesting in the city.”
Phone user Gill Bullen, from Highfield, has had little or no signal since Tuesday.
She said: “It never occurred to me a bird could wipe out phone and Internet access – it is just brilliant.
“My husband thinks it is just a damn good excuse, much better than the usual ones.”
The peregrine falcon is afforded the highest degree of legal protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
It is an offence to intentionally take, injure or kill a peregrine or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young.
It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season.
Violation of the law can attract fines up to £5,000 per offence or a prison sentence of up to six months.
A Natural England spokesman said: “They are heavily protected birds and can’t just be disturbed.
“It is peregrine nesting season at the moment and they do nest on large structures but this is the first Vodafone mast I have become aware of where this has happened.”
Tony Whitehead, from the RSPB, said the birds may not vacate the nest until the summer.
He said: “They can not be disturbed during the breeding season. The bird will have fledglings until June so until then the mast is protected.”