How A New Group Is Trying To Save Shaftesbury’s Swifts

Shaftesbury’s swift colonies have probably been here since Saxon times. Modern construction means there are fewer gaps and spaces where the birds can nest. Now, a new Shaftesbury-based project hopes to secure the future of swifts in our town.

Swifts arrive in Shaftesbury early in May, leaving for their sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern wintering grounds in August. Catherine Simmonds is one of the volunteers with the town’s newly formed Swift Group. Her team has found an inexpensive way to stabilise and even increase our swift numbers.

“I was aware of them in the village. I used to wait for them to come. I love seeing them,” said Catherine Simmonds, who went to school in Enmore Green.

We sat in the leafy shade of her garden in the centre of ‘the village’. Catherine is knowledgeable about the birds and, as we chatted, she shared interesting facts about the species. She wasn’t a birdwatcher when she started this project. Her love of swifts followed on from a passion for poetry.

“I got interested because I promised a friend that I would write a poem about them. The pretext for writing it was that, as a joke, I said that I had a theory that swifts didn’t have shadows, because they’re so fast and they’re so aerodynamic. So, I thought I had better test my theory,” said Catherine. “I spent a lot of time standing on the road, watching them going over in the sun. In writing the poem, I knew I was being silly, so I thought I needed to learn more about them. That’s when I started going on the RSPB sites and looking things up.”

Catherine Simmonds

Catherine is clearly fascinated by swifts because they are different from many species we see in and around Shaftesbury. “Genetically, they’re more related to hummingbirds. We often lump them in with martins and swallows, because they come at a similar time,” she said.

Many people have stood and marvelled at the way swifts swoop and dive. The birds are special because they don’t try to land. “They’re completely dependent on airborne insects, so they’re very specialised in what they can eat. They have to take everything they need from the air. I found out that there are actually quite a lot of airborne spiders that are just taken up into the thermals.”

That made me smile. I told Catherine that, as an arachnophobe, it was the last thing I ever wanted to hear about. “Sorry about that,” laughed Catherine. “I found out they actually constitute quite a big bit of the swifts diet. They fly and trawl for insects and they make these balls of insects, which is what they feed their young on. They can’t come down and peck on the floor or take things from feeders like other birds.”

It is remarkable that swifts need to gather most of the things that they need whilst in flight. “Everything we think about birds in the way that they nest, collect twigs, land on the floor and peck worms, swifts aren’t doing any of these things. Even their nest materials are things they’ve caught in the air. They’ll catch feathers, sometimes tiny bits of plastic. They can’t even take leaves,” said Catherine.

Catherine thinks that Enmore Green’s position at the foot of the Shaftesbury’s slopes might encourage swifts. “I would have thought that the slopes are important. We’ve got the fields where the springs are. Water is really important to swifts. Water and trees are a great generator of insect life. They’re always going to want to be near open water and have a lot of tree cover.”

Catherine says that the Enmore Green swifts have been there as long as she can remember. “There are obviously enough nest sites here. Enmore Green has been lucky in that there have been enough places that have kept the colony coming,” said Catherine. “The town’s got a colony. I don’t think there are any nesting in St. James, but I might be wrong. There are other small colonies out in the SP7 area, in The Donheads. Once they have found a place where they can nest, that will bring other birds in.”

Catherine knows where she can see the birds around her part of Shaftesbury. “I am pretty sure that there are some on the Methodist chapel, which is now a house. There are definitely some using the eaves of the brick workers’ cottages.”

Catherine also understands when to see swifts. “It’s a very specific timing. Once they’ve arrived, and they’ve gone on to the nest and they’ve laid their eggs, there will be one bird that’s on the nest most of the time. There will be points early in the morning and late at night where the birds will swap over. That’s the time when you hope to see them. Before and after dusk, the parties of swifts come much lower down and they start screaming along the rooftops. They think this is a partly social behaviour, but they’re flying very close to where the nest sites are. They’re calling into the birds on the nests.”

Enmore Green

Catherine told me that some people are surprised to find out that swifts remain in the air at night. “Unless they’re actually on a nest, they will sleep in the air for the night and then come back down. The rest of the colony that is screaming around will disappear up into the sky, if they are not sitting on eggs.”

She recommends a visit to Donhead St. Mary’s church at dusk. “They are really good ones to observe because you can stand in the churchyard and watch them going around and around. Eventually, you’ll either see one flip out or one flip in. They don’t land, they just go straight into the hole. So, you’ve only got a split second to see them.”

Catherine’s group has applied for project funding from the Town Council’s Wild About Shaftesbury ecological competition. “The initiative with the Swift Group is to make sure that we’re thinking ahead as a town and making sure there are suitable nesting sites for swifts. We’ve enabled them as a species, that have come to adapt to human life. They are naturally cave dwellers. Since we created the built environment in the Middle Ages, they’ve started using our buildings, finding holes which have enabled them to move away from just caves.”

Catherine says that new, mass building practices and insulation have changed that. “We’re using more plastics. We’re making our houses better sealed, but we’re often then blocking up these places where the swifts have been living. Once they lose the sites, the colonies will disappear, and they’ll just wither away,” said Catherine.

One solution is providing ‘swift bricks’ to homeowners and builders. “In a new build, instead of putting in a normal brick, you put a swift brick in, which has a specially sized hole and a nice, dry cavity inside. Then you’ve provided a site for swift that can be used for as long as that building is standing. We have a unique opportunity to help us help them to live with us.”

Catherine’s group is asking the Council’s Wild About Shaftesbury competition for £1,000 to fund promotional and educational material including reusable banners and fact sheets. Swift bricks and boxes cost between £20 and £70 each. They also want to buy an MP3 player to play back swift calls, which could attract more birds.

The Town Council has set up a group to assess the three bids submitted. It is hoped that grants will be awarded this summer. Catherine says the money could ensure the spectacular sight and sound of swifts for generations to come. “Anyone who lives in Shaftesbury can stand out any night of the summer and watch them doing these aerobatics and know that we’re helping them to keep coming here,” said Catherine.