The Hathersage Swift - The project attempting to reverse the bird’s fortunes

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 June 2019

A swift in flight Photo: S Richardson

A swift in flight Photo: S Richardson

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The swift is such a part of a Derbyshire summer, but their numbers are in serious decline. Andrew Griffiths visits a project in Hathersage that is trying to reverse the bird’s fortunes

A swift leaving a next box Photo: S RichardsonA swift leaving a next box Photo: S Richardson

For many readers idyllic childhood memories of summer will include the presence of delta-winged birds streaking across a perfect blue sky.

There will have been swallows there, with their long forked tails, suddenly swooping low along rivers and lakes, scooping insects from the water surface as they sped. Martins, too, building their mud shelters up against our roofs and eaves, and swifts, making their homes in the small gaps and crevices left by builders.

You may have been regaled by parental tales of this last bird, the swift, and how once it had taken flight it never came back down to earth again. How it fed on the wing and slept on the wing, and later you might have learned something of the prodigious migrations of these birds, that took them to Africa and back again, a journey of 14,000 miles, and marvelled at how a creature of just a few ounces could manage such a feat. And never land. To live their entire lives airborne, in transit. Something like that can catch a child's imagination. It did mine and I'm thankful to say that it still can.

But the swift is now under threat. It is a bird we have taken out of its time. A creature of habit when it comes to nesting, we slowly, over many generations, coaxed it out of its natural tree holes and dark cliff corners and into the small spaces builders left between roof and wall. That they have lived with us like this has been documented since Roman times and it was most probably the case even before then. But now, our obsession with hermetically sealed living, to regard any sign of the 'real world' entering our homes as being unclean, has seen their numbers fall by 50 per cent in the last 20 years as we have battened down our houses and public buildings.

John Ellicock, Carol Collins and Lester HartmannJohn Ellicock, Carol Collins and Lester Hartmann

The blow to the swift is two-fold. A toxic mix of climate change, pollution and intensive agricultural practices has seen a precipitous fall in flying insect numbers which some scientists estimate to be as high as 75 per cent over the last quarter of a century. Modern building practices and renovations have locked them out of their nesting sites. Take away their breeding sites and limit the food to sustain them and the outcome is predictable. The swift is one more victim in our long march away from the natural world, rather than accepting and living within it. It is one more piece we are losing from the biodiversity jigsaw, and the implications of such a diminishment we are only just beginning to realise.

In an old mill in Hathersage, where they used to manufacture needles when steel making was the valley's staple, three recent arrivals to the town are laying the ground for the swifts return: John H Ellicock, who arrived from Hampshire four years ago, Carol Collins who has years of conservation work behind her, and Lester Hartmann, a creative designer in wood who used to build interiors for up-market clients in the south.

The idea behind the swift group is simple: build boxes specifically designed to suit the birds nesting habits and fix them to the houses the birds would once have called their home.

In a place such as Hathersage, which has a lot of old buildings, the swifts' problems begin when people decide to make repairs to their houses.

Installing swift boxes at a private houseInstalling swift boxes at a private house

'We don't blame any house owner for having a roof renovated,' says John, 'But if they know they have got swifts there, in the years before they make the decision to re-roof it is good if they can get some boxes up so the birds can make the transition.'

The swifts' 14,000 mile migratory journey is even more astonishing than it at first appears. They don't make the round trip once, but may do so two, three or more times before settling on a place to raise their young. So put up a box and it may be three or four years before it is finally occupied. Conversely, block up an existing nesting site and that bird may never breed again.

'They pair for life and they are loyal to their nest site,' says John.

Hanging on the walls of the old mill workshop are photographs of Lester's designs and installations from his previous life: beautiful kitchens in London apartments in one, a twisting staircase that seems to defy gravity he was commissioned to build for a hunting lodge in another. It is all a long way from the pile of bird box panels waiting to be assembled by his daughter that are stacked up now in the mill.

Two 'bangers',  juveniles that are the perfect targets for the nest boxes. They are called bangers because they have a habit of banging on nest boxes to check if they are occupied Photo: David NaylorTwo 'bangers', juveniles that are the perfect targets for the nest boxes. They are called bangers because they have a habit of banging on nest boxes to check if they are occupied Photo: David Naylor

It was John who persuaded Lester to turn his attention to the birds, after asking him to make a box to tempt in a family of kestrels.

'This time last year, the idea of building bird boxes wasn't on the horizon at all,' says Lester, as the four of us sat around his workbench. 'I thought it would be boring.'

But then Carol told me how John had taken Lester along to ring the kestrel chicks in the box, and he was hooked.

'While I was doing that, I thought to myself: "I am getting a lot more satisfaction out of doing this than I did building some flash kitchen for some really rich person in London, who wants it purely for show,"' says Lester. 'That's when I thought: "Hmm, maybe I should go into this.'"

Demand for the boxes is growing. Last year, during National Swift Awareness Week, Hathersage organised a walk around the town to highlight the issues facing the birds. A hundred people turned out, which made it the largest event out of 80 held that week UK-wide. Now more Derbyshire groups are setting up in Chinley, Edale and Hope.

'We've now got a cherry picker hired for a week, and we're putting boxes on 65 properties,' says John.

Meanwhile, Lester has been liaising with experts such as Mark Glanville from the Bristol swift group, combining Mark's deep knowledge of the birds' behaviours with his own design skills to tweak the boxes. The challenge is to make the entrance suitable only for the swift, optimise the interior for raising young (and sometimes filming!) and for the whole thing to fit neatly onto an existing house.

'The development work is immense,' says Lester, telling me that the whole cutting operation has now gone computerised.

Carol is working with people to persuade them to provide a home for swifts, and she has been involved with churches before, which can make excellent sites.

'When we are trying to persuade people to put swift boxes up, one of the first things that comes up is: will there be a mess? Fortunately for us, swifts don't actually make a big mess like that,' says Carol.

However, the implication is, that if they did - such as house martins might be considered to do - they would not be welcome. New building projects exemplify this, and Carol has experience of these too. It is a cheap and easy answer when building a new house to incorporate a 'swift brick', which is essentially a brick with a small hole in it and a nesting compartment behind.

But when Carol has contacted developers: 'The immediate thing that came back was: "We've discovered in our experience that people buying new build houses absolutely do not want any holes where anything can get in, so no,"' says Carol.

This is about a society's perception of its relationship with the natural world as much as anything, and one which Lester thinks is changing, revealing that he has just received an order for multiple boxes from a school in Newcastle.

'Once you start getting the kids involved, you start changing attitudes,' says Lester.

The 'net biodiversity gain' for new developments, which was recently announced by the Chancellor in his spring statement (March 2019), should help move things along still faster. This will require developers to ensure that habitats are left in a better state after the build than they were before.

Meanwhile, the orders are clocking-up for swift boxes from this old needle mill. 'At the moment, we are generating enough business and we don't want to extend it this year beyond fulfilling the orders in Derbyshire, and meeting the orders from the Hawk Conservancy Trust down in Hampshire,' says John.

'People are beginning to know that we are making boxes here in Hathersage. So we don't need to be too overt in our marketing at the moment.'

However, as the computer and cutting machine rumbles on behind the closed door down at the end of the workshop, cutting out box panels, I can't help but think that it is a very neat idea of how conservation projects can combine with demand in the real world to create enterprise, and maybe, in the not-too-distant future, create jobs too. And, looking at the pile of bird box panels backing up, I shouldn't be surprised if it will be much to the relief of Lester's daughter.

National swift awareness week is 22nd-30th June; Hathersage Swift Day is 20th July;

Lester's website:

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