What if a Swift were a bat or a newt?
In this country all bat species and their roosts are legally protected by both domestic and international legislation, even if no bats are present. It is also illegal to obstruct access to a bat roost.
Great Crested Newts have a similar level of protection: to the animal itself, its breeding sites and resting places.
With bats and newts you could get an unlimited fine and up to 6 months in prison for each offence if you are found guilty.
Between 1995 and 2014 (19 years) Swifts in the UK declined by 47% (BTO BBS). It looks likely that they will have declined by more than 50% by 2020, satisfying the necessary criterion for red-listing. The rules say that a decline of 50% measured over 25 years is needed.
The Swift is a much loved bird, more conspicuous than any bat or newt, and it is declining at a rate which may well have had it red-listed already if an earlier start than 1994 had been made on measuring its population level.
Both House Sparrows, with a population over 5 million pairs, and Starlings, with a population over 1.5 million pairs are red-listed. The House Sparrow population has been relatively stable since 1995; both it and the Starling, which continues to decline, have data going back way before 1995.
The Swift with a population of the order of 80,000 pairs, and currently declining at a rate of about 4% per annum, is merely amber-listed.
Swifts are an extreme bird in many respects; in particular, with the exception of a few seabirds, they are one of the longest-lived of all British birds (known to 30 years). They are also amongst the most faithful to their nest sites of all British birds, returning for many years in succession to the same nest.
Despite this, the nests of this fabulous harbinger of summer have no year-round legal protection. Although all birds’ nests are protected while they are in use, it is not against the law to destroy a nest site outside the breeding season. One might imagine that the politicians fear the opening of the floodgates – if they let Swifts in, then what next? So far only the White-tailed Eagle in Scotland has been given such special protection of its nest site.
If someone obstructs the nest site of a Swift, before they return from Africa, and then the Swifts return and attempt to get in, is not that nest site in use? If the obstruction is not removed, is this not breaking the law? Such a situation might make an interesting test case.
Some power rests in the hands of planning authorities, they are obliged to protect and enhance biodiversity during the normal course of their work. They should condition the preservation of nest sites or the creation of new ones, but they rarely do, so the inexorable destruction of nest sites continues.
Ecology consultants rarely detect the presence of Swift nest sites during environmental impact assessments, particularly outside the breeding season; they should up their game.
The building industry and architects could play their part, not only in the preservation of existing nest sites, but also incorporating cavities in their new buildings, there are now low cost, easy to install products on the market.
If we do not find a way of affording Swifts’ nest sites the same level of protection as bats and newts, as well as creating many thousands of new nest sites, we will eventually lose them.