Space for nature: birds and building works at Francis Close Hall campus

FCH campus has some beautiful Victorian buildings, and they’ve been getting some much needed TLC this summer; Cotswold stone walls repointed, windows replaced, guttering renovated. All this work is being done mindful of the nature that makes its home here, particularly the nesting populations of swifts and sparrows. These birds make use of spaces in the roofs of old buildings, and when such buildings are renovated their nest sites can be lost as insulation is improved; quite understandably, as energy efficiency is more of a concern now than when FCH was built to be heated by coal fires! But both swifts and sparrows, which used to be common sight and sound of summer just a few decades ago, are now of conservation concern due to the loss of nest sites, and habitat change.

A nestling swift takes its first peek at the outside world. About 30 pairs of swifts nest at Francis Close Hall, an unusually large population that may be nationally important. Photo: Thousand Word Media

I’ve been a bird ringer for nearly twenty years, and I was lucky enough to see one of the FCH swifts up close for the first time at a recent dawn ringing session (check out the time on my watch!) near FCH library, where most of the swifts nest. This little guy was back in the air a few moments after this photo was taken, after a few sharp nips from its needle-like claws. Photo (c) Mervyn Greening. We know very little about swift populations, so the birds at FCH might be a neat opportunity to find out more about them, by studying the survival rates of breeding adults.

With colleagues I’ve been working with the University’s Estates department to ensure that FCH’s nesting swifts and sparrows are unaffected by the building works. Swifts are such amazing birds, elegant aerial acrobats that range over wide areas to collect food for their chicks. They’re such a feature of summer at FCH that I hoped we could find space for them during the renovation works. We have a nationally important population of swifts nesting in these lovely old buildings, and although I was looking forward to seeing the work done at FCH I was concerned that the swifts might be overlooked.

Surveys of known nest sites and a large amount of work by MSc student Matt Sharp, were used to help Kevin Farmer, Head of Maintenance in Estates at the University of Gloucestershire and his team to avoid disturbance of nesting birds, by scheduling work in sensitive areas until after the birds have finished breeding in early August. The contractors Building Solutions Ltd and ecological consultants have worked hard to find space for nature on this project. After the work finishes in September, the nest sites of swifts will be left unaffected by allowing access to the eaves, and sparrow nest box terraces will be erected to mitigate the loss of thier nest sites when the roofs and gutters are renovated.

All in all, this stands as an excellent example of how building projects can accommodate biodiversity and protect wild bird populations, without much inconvenience or expense. Catch them at FCH while you can, as they’re only in Gloucestershire for a short time, from late April until early August. And here’s an amazing fact: once they fly off to Central Africa for the winter, they won’t land until they return to breed at FCH nearly 9 months later!

If you’d like more information about swifts, and how to consider them in building renovations or even providing space in new-builds, check out the website of Swift Conservation.

Dr Matt Wood, Senior Lecturer, Biosciences. @wood_mj

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