Following a meeting last year between the Reverend Canon Roland Reim, Vice-Dean of Winchester Cathedral and Andy Broadhurst and Prof. Catharine Gale of Hampshire Swifts and Corinne Cruickshank of the Cameron Bespolka Trust who kindly brokered the meeting, it was agreed that we could investigate the installation of Swift boxes in the bell tower of the Cathedral.
The aim was to have them in place ready for the return of Swifts in May 2020 but the enforced lockdown caused by Covid-19 meant that unfortunately there was a small delay. It is often the case when we visit church bell towers that we find that a suitable location for boxes is somewhat limited. Here all but one of the external louvre openings had large shutters behind them that are left closed for most of the time.
The remaining opening on the south side, adjacent to the clock, had a different design where instead of louvres there were small holes, each with a lead-lined shroud to prevent rain ingress, whilst allowing the bells to be heard clearly outside. Fortuitously these holes are slightly larger than a swift requires to access a nest box so we set to work designing two cabinets each comprising 10 Swift boxes to fit behind the lowest panel as this was the most accessible. After a couple of visits to check dimensions and another with a plywood template to make sure we had got it right Roger Maynard set to work making the boxes.
In mid-August the day arrived for the installation. When I arrived Roger was already waiting with the boxes, tools and equipment and everything that we might need. The bell chamber is a long way up and we didn’t want to get up there and find we had forgotten something. As it was it took two trips up the spiral stone staircase which narrows to about 600mm near the top. As a precaution Roger had made each cabinet so that it could be easily split into two halves if required but in the event this proved not to be necessary.
The bell tower is huge and spacious compared to many and the clock strikes every quarter of an hour through an ingenious striker on one of the large bells.
Whilst Roger finished the assembly of each cabinet, Jacob from the Cathedral Estate team and I cut small holes in the wire mesh that prevents birds and bats from accessing the tower. These holes now correspond with the access holes in the front of the boxes and the cabinets are designed to fit tightly into the existing oak frame to maintain that integrity. Each box has a nest concave inside and a hinged back so that we can easily monitor them at the end of each season. We have also fitted a small speaker at one of the entrances so that Swift calls can be played when the birds return from Africa next year. This is a proven way of attracting Swifts and greatly reduces the time it takes for colonisation. Swifts do already nest close by and indeed Catharine reports that she saw swifts investigating these very holes in the bell tower in late July 2020 even before the work took place so we are very hopeful that birds will start nesting here in the next couple of years.
And then it was just left to clear up and go back down the spiral staircase admiring the structure on the way with its fantastic beauty and remarkable history.
We are hugely grateful to all the above mentioned for their wonderful help in enabling this project and to Jonathan Ryan, Joe and Jacob of the Estate Team and for the generous grant from Birds on the Brink which has helped to make this possible. Thank you all.
Tim Norriss - Hampshire Swifts