Conservation in action: Action for Swifts

Dick Newell explains the work of Action for Swifts, a recipient of a grant from the British Birds Charitable Trust in 2018, and the superb results that have come from the project.

While the Common Swift population is in rapid decline in the UK (roughly 5% per annum), it is a threatened species which attracts increasing attention from enthusiasts, who are keen to do something about it.
 
For many of the causes of population decline in our birds, the solutions may only be in the hands of government, who can set policies to change farming practices, fishing quotas, habitat management and so on. However, one of the causes – perhaps the most important cause – of declining Swifts in the UK is loss of nest sites, and this is something that both governments and individuals can do something about. It requires winning hearts and minds, backed up by enforced regulation. 
 
The government may be getting there: a recent press releaseBrokenshire orders house builders to protect wildlife – Developers have been ordered to do more to protect Britain’s cherished wildlife is refreshing to see. And it includes a mention of Swifts. Unfortunately, Brokenshire has since been fired…
 
On the hearts and minds side, individuals are engaged in large numbers of nestbox projects for Swifts. The Swifts Local Network, established in 2014, is the communication forum for over 80 individuals and groups working to halt the decline of Swifts. Thousands of nestboxes have been installed, resulting in many successful projects, creating new colonies and bolstering existing ones. The decline of Barn Owls was reversed by installing thousands of nestboxes, and we can do the same for Swifts.
 
Among the most successful projects are nestboxes in church belfries. These successes need more publicity. There are 30,000 churches in the UK, many (most?) with a suitable belfry. They are high, out of the way and Swifts readily take to nestboxes behind louvres. Churchyards are a natural wildlife haven, with campaigns, such as ‘Caring for God’s Acre’ focussed on burial grounds, thus complementary to Swift boxes in belfries.
 
For some years, Action for Swifts has been installing Swift boxes in belfries with a number of new colonies established in excess of 30 pairs and many smaller ones. In 2018, St Mary’s of Ely (in Cambridgeshire) had 55 occupied boxes, one of the largest colonies in a single building in the UK. 

Common Swifts enjoying the new accommodation block at All Saints Landbeach in July 2019

In recent years, Action for Swifts has installed cameras in a number of these churches namely All Saints’ Worlington, St Mary’s Ely and St Vigor’s Fulbourn. The local interest generated, not to mention increased footfall in the church, has been very much welcomed by local Parish Church Councils.
 
With the support of the British Birds Charitable Trust we will upgrade these projects and we have extended the scheme to more churches including St John’s Bury St Edmunds and All Saints’ Landbeach. The local response has been excellent, with a number of new projects resulting from people being inspired by what they see.

As churches seldom have broadband we intend to fit cameras in other public sites in 2020, where it is easier to get Swift cameras online.
 
With these new projects, we are putting more thought into the design of nestboxes suitable for camera-viewing, as well as paying attention to technical details such as better-quality cameras, white lights in the boxes and appropriate focal lengths of lenses. As a result, we are already obtaining some excellent footage.

Nestbox design, with camera housing extension

With this increased awareness, we hope to win more hearts and minds. Government may be a tougher nut to crack…

This report was previously published in our BB e-Newsletter in August 2019.