Saturday 4 February 2012

An interview with John Stimpson

Contributed by Jake

The other day, I went to interview John Stimpson. John makes a range of nestboxes as well as other wildlife products such as bird tables and hedgehog shelters. For many years he had a garden nursery and just made a few nestboxes as a sideline, initially to provide boxes for his brother's garden to prevent his brother from paying "silly prices" for commercially-produced boxes. When John decided to give up the nursery business, he also decided to spend more time on nestboxing, or what he calls his "glorified hobby".

John Stimpson in his workshop (click to enlarge)
At first, John tells me, all his customers were locals, attracted both by the quality of his boxes, and by the reasonable prices he charges. In response to requests, he found himself extending his initial repertoire from boxes for small hole-nesters like Blue Tit and Great Tit and open-fronted boxes suitable for Robins, and Spotted Flycatchers to woodpecker boxes, getting his designs from published sources.

Today, John also produces more specialist boxes, notably for Barn Owls, Kestrels and Swifts. For the design of these, he took advice from specialists in the field. In the case of his Swift box - he only produces one type - he was advised by Dick, who based the design on the Dutch Zeist box.

The original computer model used by John
 It is a compact box, about 440mm overall length, 200mm at the widest point and about 190mm high. Particular attention was paid to the dimensions of the access hole, typically an oblong shape measuring 30mm x 70mm to discourage access by Starlings. It was also important to make the box easy to put up by having a removable roof, held by a single screw, in order to give access to the back for fixing. John points out that he does not pre-drill holes in the back, as each mounting situation is different.

John uses 12mm ply, which is described as "Far Eastern hardwood exterior quality ply". As a precaution, he gives his boxes a coat of preservative, and estimates that in normal conditions, ie not exposed to excessive sunlight or precipitation, they have an indefinite life. I asked him if the ply was from a sustainable source such as wood that bears the FSC stamp, and he assured me that his suppliers said it was.

Swift nest boxes ready for the new season (click to enlarge)
There is no doubt about the success of John's Swift box. In the last two and half years, he has sold just over 1700. Customers, mostly private individuals (though he has sold in quantity to two city councils, and to some local agribusinesses), usually ask John questions like where to mount the box and what they can do to attract the Swifts. For the former, he offers common sense and a leaflet, for the latter the CD lure.

Although John supplies only the one-size-fits-all Zeist-style box, he has on occasion undertaken to provide tailor-made boxes, as happened at the Maltings in Ely, where the spaces between the protruding rafters were all different. It is a costly and time-consuming business, though, so not something that John will undertake lightly. And, in a way, he doesn't need to. His reputation for quality and price has spread by word-of-mouth, underpinned by his frequent exhibitions at agricultural shows, village fetes and fairs and the like, thereby bringing in a steady flow of orders. He agrees that he received an enormous boost when the profile of the Swift was raised following its admission to the Amber list of Conservation Concern

I asked him about feedback. Although he asks every customer to let him know what happens, the feedback is disappontingly, but not surprisingly, no more than 15%, and that is usually from people who either want to communicate their joy at having breeding Swifts in their box, or from people who express indignation that they haven't. He recounted one striking success story of an order for six boxes from a woman who was having work done on her house, which necessitated scaffolding and other disturbance to her colony. The boxes were all immediately occupied, so she ordered another four, and these were immediately occupied too.

Before I left John, I asked him for a tour of his workshop. I make a few nestboxes myself, using some very basic equipment - a rickety old Bosch drill, my father's old tenon saw, a ratchet screwdriver, and an assortment of mostly recycled screws. John's equipment is mouth-watering: a state-of-the-art Bench Saw, a shiny new Band Saw and two Chop Saws. As to screws, he says with a grin that his suppliers, Screwfix, describe him as their "best customer" - he gets through thousands of screws every year.
The impression that John makes on his visitors is that of a happy man, doing what he enjoys most, getting satisfaction from knowing that he produces a good box at a fair price, and knowing, too, that he is making a contribution to the conservation of wildlife.

Lang may your lum reek, John Stimpson!

Contact details for John: 01353 740451