Guest blog – Building for wildlife by Ian Parsons

Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees.  Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura.  For more details see

This is Ian’s sixth Guest Blog here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.

Building Regulations.  Not exactly a phrase to set the pulse racing is it?  Yet, recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about them. Building regulations, according to the planning portal website, are “minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to virtually every building”.  If you are building a new house, everything you do in the design and construction of the property has to meet the current building regulations.  That makes them quite important.

We keep getting told that we need to build more houses in Britain, the latest figures released before the last election stated that we needed to build 5.3 million new homes in the next 25 years.  That is a hell of a lot of houses and a hell of a lot of development.  Every single one of these 5,300,000 houses is going to have its construction governed by building regulations and in my mind that makes building regulations a potentially very important tool in helping mitigate the impact that these houses will have on wildlife and the wider environment.

For several decades now, the environmental NGO’s such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have studied and used the planning system for the benefit of our wildlife, but, and I may be wrong here, they haven’t done so with the building regulations.  Now I know that some of the planning decisions influenced by the environmental NGO’s (and others) have included modifying how a building is constructed so that wildlife benefits (the inclusion of swift boxes in some developments for example), but these planning decisions only relate to the individual developments in question, whilst the building regulations relate to every single one of the buildings that are to be built in the future.

The RSPB recently worked with Barratt Homes on a large development in Kingsbrook near Aylesbury, in this development of nearly 2,500 homes, schools and community facilities, some 900 specially designed Swift bricks were to be installed.  Swift bricks are basically Swift nesting boxes and are incorporated unobtrusively into the design and structure of the building. They don’t have any negative effect on the building, but they potentially have a very positive effect on Swifts. What the RSPB, Barratt Homes and Manthorpe Building Products (they developed the bricks) have done here is brilliant and should be widely applauded.

But that is just one site and it places no obligation on any other development by any other developer to follow suit. A change to the building regulations would though. If the building regulations were changed to include the installation of Swift bricks in houses on (for example) developments of over 50 houses or more, imagine how many new Swift nesting sites it would create.

I don’t know the history of Kingsbrook, but I would guess that the inclusion of the Swift bricks came about as a result of the RSPB using the planning process for the benefit of the Swifts.  Getting involved in a planning decision is very time consuming and potentially very costly, especially if you do so for every single planning permission for new housing and development.  Create a new building regulation though and that is all you have to do, because every new building built after that will have to follow it.  There would be no need for new partnerships between NGO’s and developers (although these are a good thing), no need for lengthy meetings; it would just have to happen.

The inclusion of a Swift brick would be no more of an issue to the developer than the inclusion of insulation in the external walls; it would be just another piece of the jigsaw that is building new houses. The costs would be negligible, as shown in this quote from a press release about Kingsbrook by one of the directors of Manthorpe Building Products “The product is already gaining a lot of interest and due to its ease of fitting and competitive price, builders are able to incorporate this product into their new homes with no disruption to the build and no need to incorporate any design changes to existing house types.”

So far I have focused on Swifts, but there are many other species that building regulations could be changed to help. Bat species are an obvious one, as are Swallows and House Martins, what about Owl boxes being part of any new agricultural building or industrial unit and likewise boxes for Kestrels too.  The more I think about it, the more species that I come up with that could potentially benefit from a wildlife friendly building regulation or regulations.  This is not the place to list them though; this is the place to plant the seed for a change.

In the past I have thought that adapting building regulations for the benefit of wildlife is a bit too utopian, a bit pie in the sky of me, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that, actually, it is something that can be done.  So, how do you create a building regulation?

Well according to the planning portal website, “They are developed by the government and approved by parliament”.  Now, the current government have come in for a fair bit of stick over wildlife and the environment (quite often on this website!), but after the election there are some faint signs of improvement – Michael Gove’s first speech for example – so maybe, just maybe, the government could look at this when it comes to the next review of building regulations.

The Minister of State for Housing and Planning has building regulations as part of their remit, so it would be great to hear their thoughts on this. The minister is Alok Sharma, the MP for Reading West, who seems to be a good person from what I have read so far.  Alok uses Twitter @AlokSharma_RDG and I will be tweeting him about this blog once it is published, it would be great if you could too.  If you are reading this Minister, it would be great to know your views – I appreciate that this blog is just a rough sketch of my thoughts at the moment, but hopefully you can see the general idea.  Could we build (excuse the pun) wildlife into the next set of building regulations?

A silly idea? A good idea? Am I being utopian in my thoughts? Or is this something that could work? It will be interesting to hear people’s comments on this.


19 Replies to “Guest blog – Building for wildlife by Ian Parsons”

  1. A good idea, though I wonder how many species these days are limited by nest sites rather than other factors such as food supply. New housing is going to reduce habitat and presumably reduce feeding opportunities for many species, so how many of the new nest sites are likely to be occupied? As you say, it’s an easy and cheap thing to do so worth perusing but with an ever-reducing supply of inverts I’m not sure it is going to boost the populations of most species. Maybe swifts are the exception and it would be good to know what the take up rate is like for the swift bricks installed in the last few years.

    1. Hi Ian,

      Couldn’t agree more about food supply being a huge problem, it is definitely something that needs to be addressed. Insect foraging areas as part of planning permissions would be a good thing, although they don’t fall under the remit of building regulations, which is what will dictate the building of the 5.3million houses. Maybe the new agricultural policy post EU will provide the food for the nesters… Or is that really being utopian?


      only ~ 2.27% of England’s land surface is actually built on. Another 5.3 M houses requires only another 0.4% surface. Wildlife food supply will be unaffected; it cannot be an issue. The modern agricutural landscape is the issue.

      1. Looking up some figures it might be more like 0.6% of England’s total area that is needed to solve the housing crisis. To be fair, that should be rounded up to 1% to allow for parks, gardens, community orchards, allotments and new roads/infrastructure etc.
        That’s hardly asking for very much, especially if green and brown roofs catch on.
        If we get this right, all these new houses could be of great ecological benefit.

      2. MM,typical conservation comment.
        Conservationists put all the blame on agriculture which absolves everyone else of any blame.You seriously think that all the intellectual conservationists really believe all the pollution from all things including all those houses,all those vehicles have sod all affect on our wildlife.Of course it suits conservation writers who make more money from saying that it is all agriculture’s fault than many of the farmers they criticise.
        I can tell you about a area on my doorstep that is organic and one field that I have spent many mornings getting Blackberries this past two weeks and has had no livestock or crop this year and I have seen no bird or wildlife of any description bar one tiny frog.
        That leads me to believe it is a far more complex problem than just agriculture’s fault.
        Lets face it some of the most dramatic declines in birds are nothing to do with agriculture.

        1. One more point.
          During seven mornings blackberrying not one bird on organic field with hedges not trimmed for at least fifteen years to my knowledge,not even one bird then arriving home each morning garden loaded with birds eating all the feed on offer.
          It struck me why the bloody hell would they struggle to find food on agricultural land when almost everyone in our locality puts out all the food they could possibly want which they can get easily and have far more time to enjoy their leisure pursuits.
          Of course I have never said agriculture is blameless but the bird decline is much much more complex than just agriculture and by denying that then it will never get solved.
          We have probably got now where even where things are in birds favour the birds are actually not available in numbers to take advantage of favourable places in my opinion.

        2. DA, your organic field is interesting and puzzling.
          Yes, it’s a complex problem but my statement was about refuting the idea that taking up another one percent of land for housing is going to make a bad situation worse. Even at a purely statistical level, it can’t – that fraction is too small; the dilution effect is too high.
          I live in an area packed with housing. The wildlife around the edge of town is great and varied. Go a bit further into the local fields and things quickly become dull and quiet. Go back into town and pass some of the allotments and you’ll hear bird song again and see those once common arable weeds which are now almost completely absent from every field corner.
          By the way a farmer explained the other day, that organic arable crops have a serious negative effect on ground nesting birds because of the repeated tillage required for weed control. Agree, it’s complicated but RSPB’s Hope Farm experiment seems to have cracked it. And I believe it’s non-organic.

      3. The BBC article claims that parks, sports pitches and gardens in urban areas are classed as “natural environments”, which they are not. The article claims, therefore, that of the 10.6% (!) of England which is defined as urban, 78.6% of that is actually “natural environment”.

        The article then includes all mountain and moorland areas, which are both uninhabitable by people – and unusable for agriculture which we need to feed those people – to come up with the hopelessly misleading figure that ‘only’ a tiny, minuscule percentage of additional land is required to house, transport and employ an endlessly increasing human population, implying – it seems – that such endless development simply cannot impact on wildlife abundance or biodiversity.

        As a whole, the UK provides barely 50% of the food it requires for its *current* human population to survive, even after the dramatic intensification of agriculture, never mind a human population ‘target’ once postulated by the Editor of the Financial Times (pre-Brexit Referendum vote!) of 85 millions!

        It beggars belief that people can still think that increasing the UK’s human population does not dramatically adversely effect our environment! And that *excludes* the existential threat posed by endlessly increasing greenhouse gasses, where urban areas both concentrate and magnify those threats to our existence.

  2. Swift boxes or Swift bricks? Boxes can be taken down and bricks can be filled in but are at least permanent. When my MP was Environment minister I had words with him to change things but his response was to say lets wait and see if 18 houses with Swift bricks actually worked! Well I am sure the houses are still waiting to be built and the he has moved on! Such is the problem of getting ministers to make a decision. Going to war against North Korea may be a lot easier to make a decision on!!


    Great idea Ian. Mark’s link (in his Aug 23 blog p4) above re new green and brown roofs in cities etc is very relevant here: Tiny utopias are already starting to appear right above our heads, so it seems. But there’s an urgent need for the pace to quicken; all those wildlife NGO’s esp RSPB need to lobby and put your thoughts in regulatory concrete and do a lot more thinking like you.

  4. I do so agree! If a listed property has any work done, the regulations are enormous. Why should bricks and mortar, (which can, after all, be easily replaced- Windsor Castle fire e.g.), have any more protection than our wildlife? We have a local development, at the final design-acceptance stage, and I made the comment that maybe they could use things like Swift bricks. Also, could they look out for hedgehogs when the excavators/diggers move in? Their nests are very difficult to spot, I know, but with expert help, many could be saved from almost certain terrible injury. However, I can’t see our local planners/developers caring a jot.

  5. Definitely a good idea. The well-documented benefits for people of being connected with nature, should add further weight to this argument.

  6. Kerry McCarthy MP for Bristol East is the nominated Swift Champion. Maybe this would be something that she could push forward.

  7. Whilst I think it would be a nice idea along with the others mentioned as all could help wildlife I think the bigger issue is that the planning system itself needs a serious review and reform.

    OK, that’s a far bigger job, swift housing (boxes or bricks) would in theory be a quick win (assuming there is a food supply around suitable natural habitat etc.) and something relatively easy to introduce. I could imagine some developers happy to oblige but the cheap and cheerful mass produced boxes designed to net greatest profit an extra tenner is stretching things in some less affluent areas perhaps;(

    There are so many distractions for Ministers to use to avoid addressing reform of a damaging and unfair planning system (developers can appeal yet the public cannot unless it is through Judicial Review and that is just to address procedural issues) and if it were up for consultation etc. then would the public see it as a priority to challenge?

    We should wait to see if Mr Gove is going to leave the environment in a better state than when he arrived as per 5000+ words in his speech of 21 July 2017?

    Or should we keep on being keyboard warriors with monthly / weekly letters to our MPs perhaps?

  8. Ian:
    Some members of the very active ‘Swift Local Network’ yahoo group, which links the growing number of local swift groups across the UK together, are already actively encouraging local developers, councils and housing associations to incorporate internal swift ‘bricks’ into new builds.
    But more effort on the part of national and local NGOs on this subject would of course be most welcome….
    There’s much more to be gleaned about this topic on Dick Newell’s ‘Action for Swifts’ blog and Edward Mayer’s ‘Swift-Conservation’ website.
    Ps. Swifts, recently ‘upgraded’ by the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey as having declined by over 50% in the last 20 years, will now be moved from the amber to the red list when these lists are reassessed, making the case for including nesting provision for them in new builds a much higher priority than it has been.

    1. Hi Nick,

      I know that there are plenty of people encouraging the integration of Swift bricks into new developments, which is great, but they have to constantly repeat the process with every new build development. If Swift bricks were covered by a building regulation they wouldn’t need to do this, as the ‘bricks’ would have to be part of the development regardless of anyone asking for them, every development, everywhere.

  9. Quite so Ian. Having a building regulation would be a huge step forward.
    Helping swifts in this way is relatively easy and well rehearsed. Helping house martins, which are much messier (and therefore less welcome) birds will be far harder to achieve and yet they have declined even faster and further than swifts.
    It is also the case that developers don’t always carry out the regulations or conditions placed on planning permissions. They often fail to install the correct number of swift boxes and/or install them in the wrong places – so some better checking systems than exist at present will almost certainly be required.

  10. A brilliant idea, I would love it if this could happen. It’s so time consuming working with individual developers on individual projects, we need something on a much wider scale if we are going to be really effective at helping species that are dependent upon buildings for their homes. If such a building regulation could be introduced I think it would be a game changer for species such as Swifts and House Sparrows. I do hope something comes from this proposal!

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