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The Hospital of St Cross: encouraging Swifts back to their ancient home

The Hospital of St Cross in Winchester is thought to be one of England’s oldest charitable institutions and has been described by Simon Jenkins as ‘England’s most perfect almshouse’. The Order of the Hospital of St Cross was founded by Bishop Henry of Blois in around 1132 to support 13 poor men. In 1445, Cardinal Henry Beaufort founded the Order of Noble Poverty, adding the Almshouse to the existing hospital buildings.

The appearance of the Hospital has changed little since then. Several of the Brothers who live at the Hospital remember summers when large numbers of Swifts could be seen and heard over the Hospital, but they report that there are now far fewer than there used to be. With the enthusiastic support of Catriona Morley, the Clerk of the Trustees at the Hospital of St Cross, Hampshire Swifts have now completed the second stage of a project to increase the Swift population at the Hospital.

Catriona Morley of The Hospital of St Cross and Catharine Gale from Hampshire Swifts in the Old Kitchen Wing loft

In May 2018, Tim Norriss and Catharine Gale of Hampshire Swifts were invited with Tim Walker to visit the Hospital and see the huge lofts that run the length of the Brothers’ Almhouse and over the Old Kitchen Wing. Catriona was keen to find out whether it would be possible to install internal nest boxes for Swifts in these lofts. After careful examination, it was decided that eight internal nest boxes would be installed in one of the lofts, situated over the Old Kitchen Wing. This loft had been recently converted so was fully floored which made the installation much easier. As the buildings at the Hospital are Grade I listed, it was essential to construct the boxes in such a way that they were not fastened to the ancient beams against which they would be resting. Detailed measurements of each of the gaps between the beams and the eaves were needed to ensure that the new boxes, designed specifically for Swifts, would fit snugly and allow the birds to fly straight into the entrance of the box via gaps under the eaves.

Gaps between the rafters
Swift box installed between the rafters

Over the summer of 2018, Roger Maynard constructed eight Swift nest boxes, complete with concaves, ready for the return of Swifts in 2019. Sheep’s wool was used to fill in any gap between the entrance to the box and the beams to make sure Swifts could only access the nest box, not the loft itself.

Swift's eye view of the entrance hole

Early in 2019, Tim Norriss investigated the second loft over the Old Kitchen Wing and discovered it was possible to install more internal nest boxes there. Roger Maynard constructed a further 8 nest boxes and he and Tim installed them before the Swifts returned. These boxes were funded by Hampshire Swifts. A call system was installed at one end of the nest boxes in the first loft to attract the birds to the boxes using Swift calls. At the end of April, the call system was switched on and we waited to see if the Swifts would find the new nest sites.

In June and July, Swifts were seen going in and out of the gaps in the eaves straight into some of the nest boxes nearest the call system. Viewed from outside, it looked as if 3 or 4 of the nest boxes were in use, but we had to wait till the Swifts had gone back to Africa before we could open the boxes to check. To our excitement, 4 of the nest boxes had been entered by Swifts. Two of the boxes had nests that had clearly been used for breeding. One box had a nest built by non-breeding birds, all ready for when they return to breed for the first time next summer. Close examination of the video shows that there is still life in these nests, even though the Swifts have left...

The fact that the occupied nest boxes were all close to the call system provides good evidence that playing Swift calls can be very effective at attracting Swifts to new nest sites. Before the Swifts return in 2020, we plan to install a further call system in the second loft. We also hope to install a camera in one of the boxes that Swifts nested in this year, so that we can have a live transmission of the nest that people can watch in the cafe while visiting the Hospital of St Cross.

The next stage in our project at the Hospital of St Cross is to install internal nest boxes in the long loft running over the Almshouse. Hampshire Swifts was fortunate to receive funding for this from the Waitrose Community Matters scheme this summer. Access to this loft is more challenging than for the first phases of the project but the potential rewards in terms of additional nest sites are huge.

Roger Maynard, Hampshire Swift's carpenter and Swift box installer par excellence

Thanks are due to Catharine Gale for kindly supporting the costs of the first phase of this project and to Roger Maynard for his expertise in making and installing the boxes.

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