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One swallow might make a summer

by John Burton

SwallowIn 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."

How true.

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.

SwallowIn 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.

The reasons 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.

The swallow 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.

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John Burton is CEO of The World Land Trust and a natural history writer.