Winchester's Swifts: Results and Implications of the 2018 Survey
In 2017 the University of Winchester invited Hampshire Swifts to survey the university campus and 81 student properties for evidence of breeding Swifts. This was subsequently extended to cover the areas of Winchester in which these houses were located and eight areas of the city were surveyed in 2018.
The primary objective was to provide the university with nest site locations so they could avoid disturbance or damage to Swift nest sites during routine maintenance work. Secondary to this the information would help in identifying where best to locate Swift nest boxes on university-owned properties. We also felt that this survey presented an opportunity to better understand the distribution of breeding Swifts across areas of Winchester which may have been under-surveyed in the past.
As the survey progressed we started receiving reports of re-roofing works in the Highcliffe area of Winchester resulting in the loss of known Swift nest sites. This work was stopped until the Swift breeding season was ended but upon conclusion of the survey we had to rethink how best to utilise these data.
In early 2018 18 volunteers met at the university and were trained in Swift survey techniques. The 8 areas of the city were divided up so each volunteer was given an area of approximately 500m x 500m which could be comfortably covered in the 2 hours before sunset. Volunteers were asked to visit their square 3 times from May through to August and locate low-level screaming parties recording numbers, date, address & 8 figure grid reference followed up by more focussed visits to identify the precise location of Swift nest sites (plus photos when possible). We acknowledge the help of Emily Seccombe and the RSPB Oxford Swift City project in assisting with this training.
135 location records of breeding Swifts were contributed by 15 observers. A “location” can include several nest sites and/or numbers of birds in “low level screaming parties”. The number of records was (by area): Stanmore (37), City Centre (32), Highcliffe (24), Fulflood (16), Weeke (16), Hyde (5), St Cross (3), university (2). Badger Farm & Winnall had no breeding Swifts (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Location of all Swift records by area
More detailed review of the distribution of nest sites in specific areas of the city can be obtained by scrolling in, for example, looking at the Stanmore data (Figure 2)
Figure 2: Swift breeding locations in Stanmore
There were 37 records received from Stanmore, more than from any other area of the city. At least 65 nest sites were recorded on these properties. These records were largely clustered on Sheridan Close, Minden Way and Wolfe Close with a few records on adjacent roads.
Figure 3: Swift breeding locations in Weeke
All 16 records in Weeke were located on Trussell Crescent with at least 20 nest sites found, many located in holes created by removal of overflow or other pipes (Figure 3).
Winchester City Council is the biggest landlord in Winchester, owning 3720 residential properties (Figure 4)
Figure 4: WCC Properties, by postcode
When we superimpose the distribution of Swift nests onto the WCC properties map we get the following (Figure 5)
Figure 5: WCC Properties with Swift nest site locations
Some areas of the city have WCC properties but no Swifts, some have Swifts but few WCC properties (notably the city centre) and others have both Swifts and WCC properties. WCC maintain and renovate their estate so we checked where and when works were scheduled in the areas with breeding Swifts, notably Highcliffe, Stanmore and Weeke. The schedule, but not what will be done, is available on the WCC website, searchable by postcode. This is shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6: WCC Maintenance schedule for Highcliffe, Stanmore and Weeke
Discussion and conclusions
Swifts nest in good numbers in a small number of locations in a few areas of Winchester. However, the pattern of records in housing estates such as Highcliffe, Stanmore and Weeke suggests that what we see today is but a small fraction of what used to be present. The high number of roads without breeding Swifts gives the impression that we have arrived quite late to this decline and breeding Swifts are confined to the few areas which remain suitable for breeding. Naturally, the nature of these colonies makes them highly vulnerable to building maintenance.
There are many landlords in Winchester but Winchester City Council is the largest, owning thousands of properties, some corresponding with areas with high Swift numbers and planned maintenance in the next 3 years although we don't yet know what these works will entail.
A worst case scenario suggests that if things continue as they are then we run the risk of losing all breeding Swifts outside the centre of Winchester.
On the other hand, if we are able to collaborate with WCC and other landlords and work with them to either protect or mitigate for the loss of existing Swift nest sites and are given the opportunity to add nest sites to properties without nest sites, then we can ensure Winchester retains these fabulous birds at no cost to maintenance schedules.
WCC is also responsible for the Local Plan and review of planning applications, both of which could condition Swift bricks in new developments, providing thousands of potential Swift nest sites.
As a consequence of this work and events over the summer, Hampshire Swifts recently organised a meeting, held on the 20th November 2018 and hosted by the University of Winchester, to review our survey data in the context of the maintenance activities of Winchester City Council and other landlords combined with the wider implications of the Winchester City Council Planning Authority Local Plan and planning procedures in general. Attendees included representatives from Winchester City Council (WCC), Hampshire County Council (HCC) (incl Hampshire Biodiversity Information Centre, HBIC), Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), Hampshire Ornithological Society, University of Winchester (UoW), Winchester College, Winchester Trust, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Trust, local property landlords, the survey team from Hampshire Swifts and concerned individuals.
The meeting was very positive and a large number of encouraging and innovative proposals were made by those present. In summary, Hampshire Swifts has started building up a good collaborative relationship with WCC and HCC as well as developing our local authority and biodiversity contacts across the county. Our work on Local Plans will be optimised and we will also be working to ensure developers become increasingly aware of our work and the ease with which Swifts can be conserved.
Additionally, however, the importance of local conservation activities such as with schools, universities, NHS Trusts, Winchester College and other groups cannot be underestimated. As awareness of our activities increases the number of potential projects we could start continues to increase and resource is very much a limiting factor. We simply need more people to pick up and run with Swift-related projects. This is exemplified by the fact that the Winchester City Council Planning Authority is but 1 of 15 planning authorities in the county, each of which has its own Local Plan, none of which currently provision for the inclusion of Swift bricks in new developments.