I travelled by foot to Gunnerside to interview two women on a Thursday evening late in May.
Stacey Adlard and Rachel Antill are two of 19 volunteers on a Sustainable Swaledale project called ‘Wing It’.
They are recording where swifts are foraging and nesting in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale.
The National Park Authority has published a news release on their work. This post goes into more detail and tells the story of how Stacey and Rachel located a swift’s nest for the first time.
It happened at about nine thirty at night. Dusk was falling in the village of Gunnerside in mid-Swaledale.
Ecologist Stacey Adlard was carrying out a bat survey for her friend Rachel Antill.
“I was actually sitting in the garden on the other side of the road opposite the house,” she said, “because her neighbour kindly said I could, so I didn’t have to stand in the road.
“They come in so fast. They don’t land on the entrance and sit there and faff around. A black flash. There was no messing. Straight in and a few minutes later straight out.”
While watching for bats, she had seen a swift.
Rachel Antill said: “That was how we found one of the first nest sites in Gunnerside. You have to be literally sat there watching it, because there is no sign on the exterior of the bird nesting there at all. It’s a tiny gap between the top of the wall and the coping stone on the roof. And they just dive straight in there and you’d never know they were there.”
This year the nest has become occupied again and the assumption is that it is the same pair of birds.
Stacey Adlard said: “We have no proof, but they are known to return to the same site and the youngsters are known to return to the same village. They can’t be far off laying eggs, but they need a bit of time back to sort themselves out, presumably find their mates and build themselves up after the journey.”
The ‘journey’ is one of thousands of miles. Each year swifts fly from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, arriving in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in late April/early May to breed, and leaving again by August. The first time I saw a swift this year was while watching my lad play football in Sedbergh on Sunday 30 April.
Swifts are a red-listed bird of conservation concern, meaning that their numbers are in severe decline. Indeed the swift is pictured on the front cover of the 2021 ‘Bird of Conservation Concern 5’, as published by the British Trust for Ornithology and others.
The response from the community group Sustainable Swaledale has been to create a project called ‘Wing It’. It is surveying and recording existing colony nest sites in the two dales of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, and putting up new swift nest boxes to give the birds a helping hand. The group is also planning to produce a home repairs guidance leaflet.
Rachel Antill explained the approach to putting up nest boxes: “Aerially swifts are so fast and adept that that really affects where you put a box. You’ve got to make sure they’ve got a clear way into it. They like to make an arc downwards and then up into the entrance of the box. You’ve not only got to get the box on the right aspect of a building, but you’ve got to make sure that they’ve got a clear line of sight to get in and out. That really limits where you can get boxes. Lots of people have contacted us and said, ‘We would love to have a swift box’, and then you go and find that the house, or the north and the east side of the house, are built into the hillside and there isn’t five metres of clearance for a swift to get in.
“Young birds that haven’t nested this year, but that are going to come back next year, start looking for a nest site in July. A new pair can take a couple of seasons to produce offspring so it’s quite a long process. One of the concerns of barns being turned into homes, or renovating properties, re-roofing or pointing, is that nest sites might get filled in. People won’t deliberately get rid of nest sites, but might destroy a nest or colony that they didn’t know was there.”
So what have the volunteers found out so far? Where are the swifts, as well as the swallows and house martins?
Rachel said: “In Gunnerside it’s really healthy, which is why we have concentrated on putting swift boxes in the Gunnerside area for our second season. We had 10-15 nesting pairs of swifts in Gunnerside last year and we ended up sending about 30 birds back to southern Africa.
“The old vicarage in Muker is home to one of our data collectors. They have 12 pairs in the village, with most of them visiting the eaves of the vicarage.”
Stacey Adlard said in her part of Swaledale she was seeing more martins than swifts: “My patch is one of the more remote ones. I sit just above Low Row so I have taken Blades and along the empty, remote farmhouses along towards Gunnerside. We know there are birds in the village and I was quite interested to see how far up they come. I know the people on the hairpin bends below me have swallows yet the difference between there and my house – which is only about 10 metres higher – they hardly ever come up to our house. So I wonder if there aren’t any suitable barns around our house, or whether it starts to get a bit cold and bleak and they don’t go that far?”
Sustainable Swaledale is not only watching the birds. It is watching the birds’ food, too: insects. The ‘Wing It’ project is designed to complement the group’s two other projects, helping to restore species-rich meadows and plant native trees.
Rachel Antill said: “It’s all very well putting boxes up but you’ve got to make sure you’re putting them in the right place and that their food source is also increasing to make sure that they can sustain themselves as a colony.”
The group is working on “about eight little patches” of meadowland, varying between half and acre and two acres in size. For the past two seasons it has also helped plant around 10,000 trees, some as hedging, some as woodland creation, linking landowners to potential funding programmes such as Tees-Swale:Naturally Connected.
My last question was why people should care for swifts?
“The swifts depend on the environment for their survival and so do we,” said Rachel. “And if the environment is good for the swifts then it is probably good for us as well. I hope eventually people will see that if you’re looking after them, you are looking after yourself.”