The Swift is a Red-listed bird of conservation concern in Ireland (Gilbert, Stanbury & Lewis, 2021). Swifts come to Ireland’s towns to breed, arriving in May and departing in August each year. They are faithful to their nest sites returning to the same one for the duration of their life. These are known as traditional nest sites. The swift exists in our towns without causing any public nuisance. There are never any droppings left under the nests (all droppings are removed by adult birds), making them an ideal town inhabitant, especially as they provide a good service by consuming thousands of flying insects. There is no risk of spread of zoonotic disease or spread of disease to domestic livestock/companion animals.
The Countryside Bird Survey has recorded a steady decline in swifts over many years with the swift showing the third steepest decline among all species monitored (Lewis et al, 2020), having declined by over 57% in eighteen years (Lewis et al, 2019). The main cause of this decline is loss of breeding sites (Whelan, Hayes & Caffrey, 2019). They nest in buildings in towns (with all known Carlow nest sites in man-made structures (Webb, 2021). Their traditional nests can usually be found at the top of walls or in cavities in brick work. They gain access to the tops of walls by climbing behind the fascia board. When repairs or renovation work are carried out to roofs and guttering the birds can no longer gain access to their traditional nesting site. Since swifts live in colonies, repair or renovation work can often affect more than one pair of birds. Swifts now rely on the buildings in our towns for their nest sites. In order to secure the future of swifts, we need to ensure that their traditional nest sites are secured where possible, and to provide new nest sites so that the population can recover.
In order to protect and increase swift numbers nest boxes can be installed at suitable locations, generally in public buildings, like schools and universities. These buildings are in public ownership, so the nest boxes are generally safe from disturbance. In private residences nest boxes are sometimes removed if ownership of the residence changes.
Artificial nest boxes can be used very successfully for swifts if they are placed in the correct location. Nest boxes should be at least 4 metres above ground level and placed such that they do not receive full sun in summer. They would generally be placed facing North or East. There must be a clear flyway in front i.e. no trees or other obstacles. The special entrance to the boxes allow swifts to enter, but exclude other species such as starlings.
In-built artificial nesting cavities are swift boxes specifically designed to be built into the fabric of a new building and provide the most sustainable and long term conservation benefits option for swifts as the cavity provides a nest site for the swifts for the duration of the life of the building. Building in swift boxes may help towards achieving and obtaining the LEED and/or BREEAM building standard for sustainable new construction projects in Ireland.
In addition to the nest boxes installation, a swift attraction call system must also be installed. Speed of occupancy of a nest box can be considerably accelerated by playing swift attraction calls. The attraction calls make the swift think that other swifts are nesting in this location and so indicate that this is an attractive place to breed. Any swift looking for a nest site will explore this area for a vacant place. The sound system should be placed as near as possible to the nest boxes e.g. on a window sill or attached to the box. Swift attraction calls only need to be used until the swifts take up occupancy. Swift attraction calls are operated on a timer - so it doesn’t play continuously and can be set to operate outside of work hours.
Carlow Town Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2021-2025.
2.3 Flagship Project 3- Save our Swifts
One of the Flagship Projects (3) identified as part of the plan is 'Save our Swifts'. 4 actions have been listed under the Save our Swifts project. All these actions as proposed should be implemented. Additional actions which are not included but which should be enacted going forward under the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and as part of the Carlow County Development Plan 2022-2028 include:
- Commission Birdwatch Ireland and the Heritage Council of Ireland to complete a swift survey of County Carlow as a whole including the Greater Carlow Graiguecullen Urban area, all towns and villages, and rural and urban heritage sites to identify all known nesting sites within the county and protect them from inappropriate development which would result in the loss of a nesting site.
- Provide a workshop for architects, planners, heritage officer, etc. to raise awareness of the need to take Swifts into consideration in projects to refurbish old buildings and in new constructions.
- Physically build in Swift boxes to new buildings within the town and county which will provide permanent security for Swift nests into the future.
- Include planning provisions for the requirement of environmentally sustainable in-built nest boxes for bats and swifts to encourage urban biodiversity in largescale new developments within the county such as any extensions to the IT Carlow Campus and Technological University, Carlow College St. Patrick’s, any other third level institutions, secondary schools and primary schools with a particular focus on urban areas.
- Legal protection of existing swift colonies in public and council owned buildings.
- Buildings which are of natural and cultural heritage importance for the preservation of swift nest sites which should be afforded protection include The Carlow Youth Centre (Glendale Avenue, Carlow Town), Carlow College St. Patrick’s, St. Dympna’s Hospital, Old Perry’s Cash and Carry (Kennedy Street, Carlow Town), Leinster Crescent (Dublin Road, Carlow Town), Cullen’s Mill (Leighlinbridge), The Old Mill (Church Street, Leighlinbridge), The Black Castle (Leighlinbridge), Old National School (Ballon), Altamont Gardens Stone Farm Outhouses, Saint Columba’s National School (Tullow), Scoil Phádraig Naofa (Tullow), St. Brigid’s Church (Clonegal).
This is now more important than ever in the midst of a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, as Swifts are now Red-listed birds of conservation concern having declined by over 57% in eighteen years (Lewis et al, 2019), with all known Carlow nest sites in man-made structures (Webb, 2021).
- Support the establishment of the Greater Carlow Graiguecullen Urban area as a ‘Swift City’ to be the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland following the lead of the Belfast Swift city initiative, the first of its kind in the world, which will help promote the conservation work being undertaken for this species and other biodiversity within Carlow and provide for the increase in numbers of swifts further promoting nature based tourism opportunities within Carlow.
- Designate a Biodiversity officer for county Carlow to help implement the Carlow Town Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and any other biodiversity projects etc and so help improve the status of biodiversity within the county.
Webb, P., 2021. A survey of Swift (Apus apus) nesting sites in county Carlow 2018/19/20. [pdf] Available at: < https://www.swiftconservation.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Co.-Carlow-Swift-Report-2018_2019_2020-1.pdf >
Lewis, L. J., Coombes, D., Burke, B., O’Halloran, J., Walsh, A., Tierney, T. D. & Cummins, S. (2019) Countryside Bird Survey: Status and trends of common and widespread breeding birds 1998-2016. Irish Wildlife Manuals, No. 115. National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ireland.
Gilbert G., Stanbury, A. and Lewis, L., 2021. “Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland 2020 –2026”. Irish Birds 9: 523—544
Lewis, L. J., Coombes, R, H., Burke, B., Tierney, T. D., Cummins, S., Walsh, A. J., Ryan, N. & O’Halloran, J., 2020. Countryside Bird Survey Report 1998-2019. BirdWatch Ireland. Wicklow.
Whelan, R., Hayes, W. & Caffrey, B., 2019. Saving Swifts. Publication funded by The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht through the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s National Biodiversity Action Plan Fund.
Scott Cawley, 2021. Carlow Town Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan 2021-2025. Carlow County Council, Carlow Town Development Forum, Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.