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Winchester Cathedral prepares the bell tower for the swifts’ return

March 18, 2021

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Following the successful installation of swift boxes in the Winchester Cathedral bell tower last year, an electronic call system will soon be switched on to encourage the swifts to nest once they return from their migration in early May. 

Swifts can be slow at taking up residence and one way to speed this up is to play swift calls in the vicinity of the nest box. The calls are set on a timer and will play for a few hours in the early morning and later on in the evening, as these times are thought to be best to attract the birds. 

Enabled by a grant from Birds on the Brink, and coordinated by Hampshire Swifts, the Cathedral agreed to the installation of the nest boxes last year as nesting sites for swifts are disappearing. The birds have traditionally used the gaps and holes under roof tiles and in gable ends of older buildings, but as a growing number of these buildings have been restored, nest sites have been harder to find. 

Canon Roland Riem, Vice-Dean at Winchester Cathedral, said, “We are delighted to be able to host another endangered species of bird in our grounds, to do more for the local ecology. We’re assured that the peregrines and swifts will get along just fine!” 

The latest figures from the British Trust for Ornithology show that the decline of swifts has been at a loss of 58% in the last 23 years. That means that 100,000 pairs of swifts have been lost in that time. This has been caused predominantly by the destruction of nesting sites, with an increased use of plastic fascias and soffits to replace timber on older dwellings and changed construction methods – specifically, efforts to reduce heat loss and carbon emissions mean that modern buildings are unable to provide appropriate nesting opportunities. 

Tim Norriss, Trustee at Hampshire Swifts, said, “Our objective is to reverse the decline of swifts in the County and this is best done by ensuring an ever-increasing supply of suitable nest sites. We can achieve this by conserving existing nest sites and by providing new nest sites on existing and new buildings. A cathedral or church belfry is an ideal nesting site, given the height and louvred windows which provide essential access. With the help and co-operation of Winchester Cathedral, we are hoping the colony will build up and we will be able to boost the number of swifts in Hampshire.” 

Conservation efforts are encouraging other cathedrals and churches across the UK to provide homes for these summer visitors whilst also raising awareness with the public to see and learn more about the importance of these birds. The Cathedral will host a talk about the swifts by Tim Norriss in the summer.