Mike Priaulx is a sustainable buildings consultant who founded the Islington Swifts Group in 2016.
Working with the Council, residents and local organisations, there are now more than 200 new nesting spaces for swifts in the borough. His twitter handle: @islingt_swifts
Why do we need Swift Awareness Week?
There are many other similarly endangered species that were once common – turtle doves, corn buntings, nightingales etc. But these species perhaps feel beyond our reach. Even if we are lucky enough to live near them, what can we as individuals with a small house and garden do to help them?
However, the survival of swifts is very much in our hands. This urban species just needs our homes to nest, and our gardens and trees to provide insects. But humans have a slightly controlling attitude to wildlife. We partition them into reserves and protected areas. Even more so when it comes to our homes – we might have shared them with wildlife since our earliest beginnings but now we want our houses to be exclusively ours. Wildlife is welcome in our gardens but only the right kind of wildlife and at our invitation.
So swifts (along with along with other building-dependent species… sparrows, starlings, swallows, house martins etc.) now find themselves in a difficult position. Luckily many people love these species and welcome them into their buildings. But some don’t. This is a particular problem for species such as swifts which have a traditional building that they use year after year. Once excluded, they find it particularly difficult to find another.
One building can be a key site for a species but it has no protection under law. Whilst bat roosts are well known to be protected (even when no bats are present), birds’ nests only have that protection when they are being actively used (under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act).
With dwindling restrictions on modifications to our properties, there are very few statutory controls at all, and it’s often the case that renovation, refurbishment and extension work is carried out in summer, just when swifts are nesting. These are a problem as modern materials remove the nooks and crannies that swifts use (more so than insulation, which can be accommodated alongside nesting spaces with a little thought). But these changes also provide new opportunities to create spaces in bricks and eaves for long-term occupation by swifts, other urban birds and bats too.
But minor renovations offer danger with little reward for wildlife already on a knife-edge in many areas. These damaging building works are often undertaken legally. Exclusion mid-way through the breeding season can be fatal, and whilst this is not legal, enforcement is very hard to achieve once work is underway.
So, what to do when scaffolding pops up mid-season? The Wildlife Crime units of the police are there to help, so don’t feel that it must be an intentional crime to contact them. The RSPCA may also assist. Where local residents are concerned, then team up with them as reputable contractors are keen to stay on the right side of the neighbours, perhaps more so than for an external conservation organisation.
Of course, not everyone feels the same way about wildlife. And everyone (with the admirable exception of ethical vegans, and followers of the Jain religion) draws the line somewhere in terms of our attitude to wildlife. So personally it is not something I am angry about. The protection of active nest sites is a legal matter so emotion does not need to be involved. Usually ignorance is the main problem. So although there is not a right or wrong answer about this, my approach would be to let people know that swifts are nesting ideally before any work begins.
A friendly chat if you know them or a note through the door explaining the plight of swifts, why they are such amazing birds (the fastest species in level flight, able to live for twenty years, eating thousands of biting insects a day, and with fledglings able to make their maiden flights to Africa with no adult to guide them… and find their way back too!).
For every one person who might not want the birds nesting, in my experience at least, nine will want to keep them and maybe do something more. I know of at least one occasion where a resident building an extension who was previously unaware of swifts nesting in their house, was sufficiently keen on their presence to both protect them and install nesting bricks in their new building.
Dealing with organisations is different. They are often willing to make changes though bureaucracy is a major hurdle to overcome. If you’re not making progress, then some social media pressure may be a useful tool perhaps if the relevant authorities don’t seem to be taking the action that they should be fast enough.
It is important that organisations are informed where possible beforehand about relevant nesting sites – churches, schools, Housing Associations. It shouldn’t be assumed that someone will know – the capacity to miss the obvious should never be underestimated! It is even harder to make sure that these organisations stay aware as staff depart and arrive – take every opportunity to remind them. Get more than one member of staff involved. Invite them to a meeting or hold an event!
With net gain for biodiversity being enshrined in English planning guidance now (NPPF 2019), and swift bricks and bat boxes now also being promoted by the government (NPPG Natural Environment 2019), we can hopefully look forward to a future where nest sites are not a limiting factor for swifts and other building-dependent species. Then we can think about food supply!
For more information about Swift Awareness Week 2020 (which runs to 5th July): search for @swiftsweek or #swiftawarenessweek, or get in touch with one of the 93 local swift groups around the UK (https://actionforswifts.blogspot.com/p/sln.html)