Slow down, take a moment and look to the skies for swifts

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Slow down, take a moment and look to the skies for swifts

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We sometimes take swifts for granted.  They travel 6,000 miles to see us every May, bring drama to the skies throughout the summer, then leave us to cope without them for another eight months.  One of my simple pleasures in life is sitting in my Cambridge garden with a beer (when the kids are in bed obviously),  and watching the screaming parties of swift in the summer evening sun.

But swift are in trouble: a 31% decline in the UK population over the past fifteen years or so.  We've been worried about loss of nesting sites particularly in towns and cities.  While they nest in caves and on cliffs, they also like the roof spaces in people's houses.  We've been concerned that these spaces get filled in, or new houses pop up without access to the roof.  This is why we clubbed together with Swift Conservation to launch our swift survey.  We want to know the location of swift nest sites so we can inform developers and local authorities to do more to protect and enhance nesting opportunities.  We need to learn to build with wildlife in mind.

 To make matters worse, we have had alarming reports that this summer's miserable weather has had a potentially disastrous impact on swift's breeding success.  The cold and damp weather has meant there are less flying insects: less food for swifts and for their young.  This is a problem because when there are chicks to feed an adult swift needs to catch up to 100,000 insects a day.  We have received reports of adults swifts pushing unhatched eggs out of nests and large flocks of swifts starting their migration back to Africa.

We don't yet know the true impact of the dreadful summer weather on breeding success of swifts or indeed other species, but, as I reported yesterday, I expect bad news.  We have been warned that climate change will bring about more extreme weather events as well as global warming.  And, we certainly have had our fair share of extreme fluctuations in our weather recently - have we just emerged from the rainiest drought ever?  I would love to see a graph which plotted the number of weather records that have been broken each year.  My guess is that the graph would show an increasing trend.  And certainly annual global temperatures keep on rising. 

Wildlife has to adapt to these changes and our own actions can make a difference.  We can help by protecting and buffering the most important places for wildlife and improve habitat connectivity.  And we can and must take responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  This week's public row over the future of our energy policy shows that we are still woefully short of the political leadership we need to get us out of the mess we are in.

So, today, look to the skies and spare a thought for swifts and all those other species that have to cope with our weather and our actions.


Mike Langman (

  • Ramehead - many thanks for that.  I'll let the team in the southwest know.

  • The bad weather has been a serious setback but I believe that nesting site reduction is a more serious worry. We have one family that returns each year and rear around 3 .They did arrive at the beginning of the season but have gone.I cant hear that amazing screaming as they chase each other around the houses. I live near Plymouth where the Council are demolishing the old sports centre with demolition delayed because of nesting swifts.Unfortunately the building will be flattened and returned to grassland so when the swifts return next year their traditional nesting sites will have gone.It would be nice to think that replacement boxes have been installed on other buildings  but I very much doubt it! It might be an idea if the local RSPB rep contacts them and enquires.