Wednesday 20 February 2019

Parapet wall Swift boxes in Ely

Elaine Griffin-Singh, a local Ely councillor announced in the local newspaper that she will focus on Hedgehogs and Swifts, so we got in touch. One of the outcomes is a project at the youth and community centre called Centre E

[Update July 20th 2019 - first Swift seen entering and leaving the 3rd box from the left on the north-facing wall]

We already have very successful projects in Ely in St Mary's Church (55 pairs in 2018) and the Maltings (11 pairs in 2018), so we were pleased to be offered a new opportunity.

The flat topped roof of Centre E is surrounded by a low parapet wall. It is a solid wall 9 inches thick constructed of headers and stretchers. We thus thought it would be a simple matter of removing some headers, inserting a half brick entrance piece with a nest box screwed to the inside of the wall. We have done this many times in Victorian walls, 

However, Centre E was built more recently, in the early 20th century, with very hard bricks and even harder mortar. So what we planned as a 1 day project turned out to be 3 days - and we have a few things left to do.

Normally we can drill out lime mortar and take the headers out whole. Not this time, we used diamond core drills (we went through 2 of them) to drill out the bricks. It was jolly hard work.

That wasn't the only complication, the inside wall was far from even, so fitting the boxes neatly proved quite a challenge, but we got it done and we are pleased with the result.

Moral of the story - test the hardness of bricks and mortar before embarking on a project like this.

The boxes are constructed larger than normal in anticipation of fitting cameras so that visitors to the Youth centre can follow the nesting of the swifts, and become environmentally aware and enthused by what they see on a monitor downstairs in the youth hub.

Centre E - 8 nest box entrances barely visible
4 entrances in the west

4 entrances in the north
4 headers removed in the west wall
2 double swift boxes in the west wall

2 double boxes in the north wall

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Guidance for including bird boxes in residential development

We have recently started walking around new housing developments in South Cambridgeshire to see what is being done in the way of Biodiversity Net Gain. In particular we have been looking to see what Swift bricks have been installed.

by John Willis & Dick Newell

Our starting point was the planning portal on the council website from which we derived maps showing exactly where every Swift brick and sparrow terrace was to be installed. Councils should carry out this kind of audit themselves, but they have no resources to do it. Thus the volunteer sector (SLN members) could have an important role to play.

As we do not wish to embarrass anyone, we will not say where we went, but we have the following observations:

1. The number of Swift bricks conditioned by the planners is low, between 10% and 20% of dwellings. There was a high percentage of empty gables. It is becoming generally accepted that It should be nearer 1 per dwelling on average, see page 101 of RIBA Publishing's Building for Biodiversity 2nd edition 2016.
2. About equal numbers of sparrow terraces and swift bricks are conditioned. Integral sparrow terraces contain three nest chambers but are seldom if ever used by more than one pair, swift boxes a metre+ apart will be used by swifts and sparrows.. There would be better outcomes for both sparrows and Swifts if there were more Swift boxes and fewer sparrow terraces.
3. Many of the conditioned Swift bricks were not installed, and, at the time of writing, we do not know what will be done to correct these omissions. None of the specified nest boxes are suitable for retrofitting.
4. Many Swift bricks were not placed high up in the gable, but in sub-optimal places at a lower elevation. Some swift bricks were even specified in garage gables, barely 4 metres high.
5. There was never more than 1 swift brick in any one gable. As Swifts and House Sparrows like to nest in groups, why not 2 or more in suitable gables?
6. Some swift bricks were placed in facing gables about 8 metres apart - this is not the clear flyway that is the ideal.
7. Some of the European sourced swift bricks are not compatible with UK brick sizes, requiring the bricklayer to cut up to 8 bricks to get them in.

Our conclusion from these observations is that there is work to be done to get both planners and ecologists up to speed in specifying bird boxes in residential development.
We have drafted some guidelines that you can read here

Figure 1: Recommended positions of internal nest boxes for Swifts and House Sparrows.
Other possibilities include holes in soffits and fascias.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Caring for God's Acre

We all know that in many towns and villages, churches are an important refuge for wildlife, including Swifts. Swifts often breed under the eaves of churches or in other parts of the fabric and we also know that many of the 30,000 churches in the country provide a great opportunity for nest boxes in the belfry. Now the charity Caring for God's Acre would like people to send in records of what you see in a churchyard.

The charity Caring for God's Acre is working with several partners including the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) and both the Church of England and Church in Wales to improve biological recording within burial grounds of all types, sizes and denominations. Burial grounds can be absolute gems for ancient trees, historic walls, monuments, lichens, fungi and flowery grassland, all of which in turn support invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and of course BIRDS! As well as feeding into the NBN Atlas and local recording systems, we will use these records to put information onto the Church Heritage Record; the system used when planning building or repair work within churches and churchyards. In this way, we hope to influence thinking and avoid uninformed decisions.

We would love to receive any records of birds in burial grounds, in particular Spotted Flycatcher and nesting Swifts. Records can be sent directly to us as a list, submitted via iRecord or the local record centre or put onto our iRecord system which is found via the Caring for God's Acre website.

Provided it is clear that the record is within a churchyard or cemetery it will reach us.