My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
This week is the first ever UK Swift Awareness Week, a brilliant initiative which aims to highlight the plight of these amazing birds.
When I look up at swifts screaming through the skies over my house in Cambridge, it seems that they live in an altogether different world to our own. They have an almost exclusively airborne existence, coming in to land only to nest. Swifts eat, sleep, drink, feed, bathe and mate on the wing. Their time with us in the UK is brief, just twelve weeks each year. Despite all this, we know that human activities are having a serious impact on these aerial acrobats and it pains me when my summers, like his year, are quieter because swift numbers are down.
Image courtesy of Killian Mullarney
Swifts depend on access to tiny nooks and crannies high in buildings and in the past human houses were ideal. In fact, traditional building techniques actually included spaces for swifts to occupy. However this fell out of fashion in post war era, as houses started to be built on standardised designs. So now there's little room for the birds and their populations have halved in the past 20 years. That’s why we encourage housing developers to make space for swifts: who wouldn’t want them as neighbours? They’re clean, gobble up biting insects, and are pretty spectacular to watch.
We’ve been working with Barratt Developments, and in 2017 they won the NextGeneration innovation award for helping boost the number of swifts in the country, having installing special swift bricks at many of their sites. In just one year nearly two hundred of the specially designed nest boxes have been installed into new Barratt homes being built at developments in Aylesbury and Exeter. Overall Barratt is aiming to install up to 900 of the boxes at its flagship nature development, Kingsbrook in Aylesbury, with hundreds more being planned across the rest of country.
We want to know what else is going on in the lives of swifts: what are the other challenges they face? Our joint work with the BTO, tagging swifts nesting in Belfast (which is where I was on Friday) is already revealing more about their extraordinary lives. Below, my colleague Kendrew Colhoun tells the story of the journey one of the swifts took:
“It departed Northern Ireland during the first week of August last year, and headed south at high altitude (around 1 km off the ground). It's GPS tag showed it passing over the Iberian peninsula, crossing the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and skirting west around the Sahara. After three weeks of travelling it crossed the equator, and carried on until a point 40 km west of the mouth of the Zambezi, around 9,020 km from its nest site just before Christmas. We calculated that between July and December it had passed through the airspace of at least 25 countries! Research on swifts continues, also looking at where they go to feed during the nesting season: you may have seen the birds' impressive commute for food illustrated during last week's Springwatch.”
You can help by contributing to another really useful source of data, by letting us know where you see swifts nesting, or flying at roof level in their 'screaming parties', suggesting a nest is nearby. Take part in our easy to use swift survey here. The results are already making a difference in planning buildings. For example, we were able to advise RG Group contractors in Redhill when they worked on extending a supermarket. An existing building was being demolished, and because we were able to show swifts nested on it, they added swift boxes to the new structure!
There are 90 events taking place as part of Swift Awareness Week: walks, talks, open gardens, exhibits and family activities. These are all arranged by local swift groups, working with Action for Swifts and Swift Conservation. You can find out more here.
And, whatever you do this week, make sure you take time to look to the skies and enjoy the swifts. They'll be gone before you know it...
Its not something most of us can do much about in our gardens, but alongside the nesting site problem surely the really big issue - and Swifts are a powerful indicator - is the drastic loss of flying insects from our skies. That is where the local and the global come together - the other strand to saving Swifts is going on right now in discussions about post-Brexit land use, as you've outlined earlier in the month. The really key issue - which RSPB and others have been plugging hard - is that it is land use we need to be talking about, not just farming, and for Swifts the idea that we need more wilder land doing all sorts of jobs from carbon capture to flood control is vital. Places like Lakenheath and Ham Wall have shown what spectacular wealth of wildlife we can generate on what is no more than a spot in the farmed landscape - and it all comes together with those Northern Ireland Swifts showing how important some natural water can be to them.