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Saving the Fulbourn swifts, Cambridgeshire

IEEM Tony Bradshaw Best Practice Awards winner 2011

SwiftApplied Ecology Ltd was appointed by Kier Partnership Homes to monitor swift use of a new housing development in Fulbourn, South Cambridgeshire. The project was awarded the 2011 Tony Bradshaw Best Practice Award by the Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management.

Project background

Residents of the 1960s Windmill Estate in Fulbourn were proud of ‘their’ colony of common swifts, which had bred in cavities in the blocks of buildings for many years. Redevelopment of the site, where 164 properties are to be replaced by 267, presents a serious risk to the colony but also presents an opportunity for ecological mitigation and enhancement through the phasing of development and the provision of artificial nest boxes. The new development has been named “The Swifts” in honour of its famous avian residents.

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Swift nest boxes

Two types of nest box were selected for new buildings at the re-developed site. One is an internal box fitted into the gable end cavity wall of the loft space, the other, a double-chambered box Schwegler 1MF, fitted externally to gable ends.

Applied Ecology Ltd’s involvement

Our role in the project was to monitor the activities of swifts at the site each summer from 2009. Our observations gave an accurate understanding of the size of the swift breeding population there, its use of each original building, and its uptake of provided nestboxes. Recordings of swift calls were played close to newly positioned boxes in order to encourage flying birds to investigate them. To prevent swifts and other hole-nesting species breeding in buildings selected for demolition, we blocked or filled potential nesting cavities on in advance of the bird breeding season commencing. Such “sterilisation” techniques were based on the use of expanded foam after confirmation using a borescope that the cavities did not contain birds or other wildlife.

Swifts are very traditional in their nesting habits, so encouraging the Fulbourn birds and their offspring to choose new nesting locations with unfamiliar characteristics, is expected to take a number of years.

Rick uses a borescope to look for swift nests

The results of our observations, and playing of swift calls to attract birds to new boxes, so far show a successful mitigation and enhancement project “in progress”. Although the size of the swift colony declined from 72 nests in 2009 to 33 in 2011, the numbers of pairs breeding in the few remaining original buildings were unchanged and, each season, more new nestboxes have been used, with a third of the colony using nestboxes in 2011. Judging by the observed interest in unoccupied boxes shown by swifts attracted to them by our recordings, we can expect significant uptake of the boxes in 2012.

Swift (copyright David Moreton, courtesy of Swift Conservation www.swift-conservation.org)Why ‘best practice’?

The project is best practice because it:

  • has ecological input;
  • responds to public interest;
  • demonstrates sustainable development;
  • increases knowledge about swifts;
  • provides a case study;
  • is cost-effective;
  • is delivering results; and
  • can be replicated.
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