swallow might make a summer
by John Burton
his splendidly readable 'The State of the Nations' birds' Chris
Mead writes "
many younger birdwatchers have no memory
of just how common Swallows used to be in rural areas."
In the late
1950s when youthful Chris Mead was bird ringing at Barn Elms Reservoir,
I was an even younger budding ringer at Beddington Sewage Farm,
and we often caught each other's birds. Both sites were well into
the suburbs of London, and both have since been dramatically transformed;
one for the better, one for the worse. And both were feeding grounds
for huge numbers of Hirundines and swifts. I recall the air being
thick with them - like so many mosquitoes.
1969 I made my first visit to Suffolk, renting a cottage on the
edge of Walberswick NNR, and buying a house nearby a decade later.
I have lived in Suffolk ever since and each year seen the numbers
of swallows decline. This year, on my daily drive from the Waveney
Valley to Halesworth I have been lucky to see more than half a dozen
swallows. But twenty years ago the air would have been thick with
them. In the past 25 years, I have had three addresses, and at each
one swallows nested in outbuildings, but no longer do so.
for this dramatic decline are easy to understand - there just aren't
enough flying insects. There are far fewer cattle, and everywhere
is sprayed. Acres and acres of pest free cereal crops have replaced
once lush pastures. And even the pastures, once flower-rich and
biodiverse are almost all 'improved'. In 1985 I moved to a house
surrounded by pasture, but within a year all the cattle had gone,
and there were yet more acres of arable. Goodbye to all the swallows
that once nested in the barns.
is a classic example of a bird once so common, that no one really
thought of keeping detailed records of numbers, no one would have
thought it could become an endangered species. But I have real concerns
for its future. Once they have left Britain, they have to run the
gauntlet of an increasingly intensively farmed Europe, all the way
to Africa. A drought on their wintering grounds - and remember they
spend more time abroad than they do in Britain - could be catastrophic
for their already depleted populations.