A Swift visit to Malmesbury




malm4A couple of weeks ago I popped down to Malmesbury for the official opening of the Waitrose store there (see previous blogs here and here). I’d been down a week earlier too and the changes since the spring, and in that last week, were quite amazing. ‘Just in time’ hardly covers it!

Whereas everybody else was most interested in the store I was, of course, most interested in checking on the progress of the wildlife features for this site. The House Sparrow nest boxes are not in place but that’s because the school children who will put them on site are now on holiday.


The Swift tower is in place, and was finished on the day of the opening, in early August. This was just when Swifts were departing Malmesbury but they will find it next April when they return after their journeys over the central African rainforest. I wonder what they will make of it. We’ll see, I’m sure I’ll be passing that way some time next summer and I’ll stop for a coffee and a look at the Swift tower. Whether it works or not, it was a good idea and an investment in nature on the site.

The wildlife area, on the other side of the fence from the car park, isn’t finished either – there are some trees to plant and other work to do, but it looks bigger now it exists than I imagined it to be and I think it has real potential.

malm5Over the next few months there is an area of banked up ground which is covered with weeds – or seed-bearing plants – that I predict will attract good numbers of finches, buntings and sparrows over the autumn.

When I first saw the site it was a not-at-all-special field. Now it is a supermarket. It is difficult to know, and time will tell, but there is a real chance that the biodiversity ‘value’ of the site may be higher, even with all that glass and tarmac, now (or over the3 next few years) than it was when the builders arrived.

The local Malmesbury River Valleys Trust will be paid to manage the site from now on by Waitrose. This seems a good idea to me as it puts it in the hands of locals, and a group of locals who care about the outcome and aren’t just managing the patch of ground for the money. I wish them well.

waitroseLast week, the day after Hen Harrier Day, but in a suit rather than a wet t-shirt, I talked to a group of senior John Lewis Partnership executives at a ‘lunch and learn’ meeting. I talked about biodiversity, the costs of getting it wrong in reputational terms, the benefits of getting it right (and how cheap it can be), and a little about why they should think about these things for every new store. The options will be different for each place – maybe green roofs would be great in some city locations but better-managed grassland in more rural sites.

I’m fairly sure they will all remember that Swifts have sex on the wing, some will remember that Swifts sleep on the wing by closing down half of their brain at a time (we think) and some may have remembered that putting a little bit of nature back can sometimes actually turn your development into a net biodiversity gain.


15 Replies to “A Swift visit to Malmesbury”

  1. I put up 2 swift boxes on my house at the back end of 2011. From the wonderful Swift Conservation, I also bought a CD of swifts strenuously defending breeding sites (I also coveted Edward Meyer’s swift shirt and snapped one up when I saw one!) I played the CD to the distraction of all and sundry in Spring and fledging time 2012 and 2013. I had box occupancy this year – yay! I am over the moon, so thrilled. This summer saw mobs of screaming swifts round my house, something that has never happened before. By the rather basic means of detecting when the droppings below the box ceased, I belive my fledgling departed on 20th August. I feel curiously melancholic now they’ve gone – real “empty nest syndrome” but can’t wait for next early summer when I will be able to shout “they’re back”!!!! I know my lovely frinds in Derby have been making a big push this year to promote the fortunes of swifts there, I’m sure they’d be very interested to hear about this swift box at Malmesbury. In fact, so am I and would love to make time to pop down and take a look. If there’s any way an audio system can be set up, I absulutely swear by the CD. I was told that it normally takes circa 10 years to attract swifts to new sites, I got mine in the shortest time possible.

    1. Hi Sue – there is a swift sound player built in and it’s even solar powered!

    2. Dear Sue and Rosi,
      Great News!
      We were so delighted to see the Swift tower go up at Malmesbury’s new Waitrose. Over the previous months we had provided advice and options for what was needed, and yes indeed, this type of tower (which is available to order from Stoneyford Engineering in Northern Ireland) is indeed fully equipped to play Swift calls. Anyone who would like to do the same, or to alternatively build in some accommodation for Swifts into their new project, is invited to have a look at our web site http://www.swift-conservation.org, and of course we are always really pleased to provide advice, urban biodiversity training and talks about Swifts too. All the very best to you and your Swifts, Yours, Eward

  2. (Sorry about all the typos in my comment above, one day I’ll learn to proof read before, not after, the event)

  3. Great report Mark, whilst a supermarket can be contratcually “completed”, habitat is always a work in progress. We picked up on some opinion locally that the owl and bat boxes won’t get used due to lighting. However barn owls and bats don’t seem to mind security lighting in farm yards near me. We’ll have to wait and see in due course how it all fairs. The swift tower will be very visible to the swifts once they come back next year, they left early this year but I visted the site in late July and tried to photograph about 30 of them on my phone…(LOL) circling right over where it has been located, next time I’ll try a video to capture the action and maybe then we’ll be able to hear them!
    The site will be in very knowledgable and experienced hands thanks to the River Valleys Trust, we wish them well and will be keeping in touch. There’s always more to be learned about making development net positive for biodiversity and we will keep working on this on every one of our projects.

  4. Mark, What excellent ideas. Before reading this I would have presumed the tower was for house sparrows and the swift boxes were on the building but obviously the other way around. My son is in the process of trying to buy a couple of fields and buildings about 5 miles away from Malmesbury. Once he is there I might try and con him into putting up swift boxes and playing them some music, I hadn’t realised swifts could be attracted that way.

    1. Bob – well, they can! But not always , and not always quickly. Swift Conservation are the people to contact for advice.

  5. The Swift Conservation site has various suggestions for swift homes. As well as the boxes and towers, new builds can also use special bricks. I want more swift homes on my house and I did try suggesting to my husband that we get a builder to bash out a few bricks in our home and replace with some swift bricks. Curiously, he said NO NO, absolutely not. I can’t think what’s wrong with the man, I think it’s a fine idea. Oh well, maybe I’ll just have to content myself with another wooden box. While writing, can I ask a question. Thinking about those yukky louse fly things, is it recommended that the box is cleaned out before the swifts return next year or should I just let nature do its thing? I’m definitely going to take a peek in the box as I’m curious to see what the adults managed to snatch out of the air to construct the nest with, but should I look and not touch?

  6. Bob, the CD isn’t music, it’s a special CD, available from Swift Conservation of swifts vigorously defending their breeding sites. Swift screams are absolutely wonderful to hear, IMHO, but I have to confess that the CD is jolly monotonous and it probably drove my neighbours and the long-suffering husband halfway round the bend! Now I’ve had occupants of my boxes, I’d never use the CD again as I’m sure that aggressive defence sounds would be counter productive (artificial ones, that is) Oh yes, with my domestic situation, I used a ghetto blaster on the inside window cill of the bedroom nearest the boxes under the eaves. This may also be a problem with tower solutions!

  7. All the big supermarket chains have made investments in nature in one way or another but Waitrose has really put their money where…Equally all big supermarkets are being squeezed by the new kids on the block Aldi and Lidl, neither of these even participate in the MCS fish sourcing scheme (daren’t participate given the source of their supplies) and haven’t run any school/community schemes for nature or anything else so hopefully we’ll remember the Waitrose effort when buying our food…no, they’re not that expensive but yes the well- heeled do like to shop in their more civilised environment.

  8. Wow. A new supermarket full of carbon miles, a massive carbon footprint – and a swift tower.


    We’re really thinking this climate change thing through.

    And getting a nice new Waitrose.

    Every one’s a winner. If you don’t think about it too much.

    1. Hi Steve

      We will be planting more trees around Malmesbury in November to mitgate the 40tCO2 emitted by our site generator from December to July (if you’re interested we also needed 211m3 of water and removed 142 tonnes of construction waste of which 99.83% was recycled). We check the impact of all of our big developments and you can see the results on our website each year at simonsgroup.com. It might be less than you think and certainly a lot less than the footprint of getting food from where its produced to our tables. As a clue – for every m2 of supermarket the impact of the materials for the store and the car park is around 650 to 700kg of CO2 – the store is 2500m2 and you can add another 10% to that for transporting materials and workers to site. The store is “A rated” for energy performance and will emit something like 60 tonnes a year from utilities use. We don’t know what the impact of customers going there by car is, but a lot of people in Malmesbury have now cut their shopping mileage significantly as the store is on their doorstep and they can walk there whilst also using the high street shops. The carbon footprint of food is another matter all together, but supermarkets won’t keep stocking items that noone buys so we all have a duty to think about what we put in our baskets if we want that to change.

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