Hannah Bourne-TaylorCreator of The Feather Speech Campaign
How a national policy for a simple brick could safeguard our very closest wild neighbours from national extinction, including our icon of summer – the swift.
I created the petition “Make swift bricks compulsory in new housing to help red-listed birds” – approved by leading scientists and sustainable building assessors – to safeguard endangered birds who share our walls. It garnered over 100,000 signatures and it’s clear to see why. Four cavity-nesting birds are on the red list, facing national extinction, yet there is an existing solution that could significantly help them – swift bricks. Also known as ‘universal’ bricks, swift bricks have a cavity in them and sit flush to a wall, providing homes for multiple species of cavity-nesting birds and invertebrates.
Recommended by the UK Green Building Council, the NHBC Foundation, and the British Standards Institute, swift bricks are a proven solution for increasing and connecting urban biodiversity. Equally crucial is that without them, there is no opportunity for red-listed, cavity-nesting, urban birds to nest and breed in any new development. The Government recommends that local planning authorities create their own policies to make swift bricks compulsory. I created the petition because LPAs are not following the extensive recommendations. Only seven LPAs have adopted a compulsory measure, two as a direct result of this petition and the wider campaign, The Feather Speech.
The most endangered out of the four species is a bird that has existed for over 49 million years and is now on the brink of extinction because of us – common swifts. This May, swifts returned home to Britain after an epic migration. Last August, adult birds left their nesting sites in our walls. After nine months on the wing, 8,000 miles, and two crossings of the Sahara, they arrived back to the exact hole they left, having not landed or perched like other birds. Swifts spend more time airborne than any other bird on earth, yet when they come home, they come home to us. The small holes in our walls are the only six inches of ground they will ever intentionally touch. Swifts go from sleeping in the sky to inches away from where we rest our own heads.
Remarkably, swifts live for around twenty years, becoming long-standing members of our communities. They inspired fighter jet design because of their unrivalled aerial displays and record-breaking speeds. They conjure pure joy and communities love them so much; welcome parties are thrown in villages and towns across the country.
Having adapted from nesting in cavities within tall trees that we cut down, to cavities in our eaves and church towers, their nesting sites are being blocked off at an unprecedented rate. Since 2013, the Government ECO4 scheme has insulated over 2.4 million homes, making use of EWI (external wall insulation, like soffits). Many swifts return, after nine months of flying nonstop, to find their home blocked. Repeatedly trying to get in, they fatally break their wings. The likelihood of displaced birds finding new nesting sites in time to breed, given they have one of the shortest breeding seasons of any species of bird, is increasingly unlikely due to the decline in nesting sites.
Between 1995 and 2017, the swift population declined by over 50 per cent. In 2021, together with house martins, swifts were added to the red list of highest conservation concern – joining two cavity-nesting birds, common starlings and house sparrows. Ornithologists, as far back as 2002 (British Trust for Ornithology – BTO), have acknowledged the loss of cavity-nesting sites is a probable factor in their decline. Yet, unlike in the Netherlands, there is no protection of nesting sites, or mitigation.
Localised surveys of swift bricks in new developments, and surveys of external swift nest boxes that mitigate nest site losses for existing populations of swifts, show that swift bricks are a strong existing solution. Duchy Estates has installed the highest number of swift bricks in new developments and surveys show up to 96 per cent occupancy rate of a range of species. If installed at a higher rate nationally, swift bricks could significantly support our urban biodiversity. Swift bricks are a bespoke, necessary, and cost-effective way of halting both general and specific-species biodiversity loss, providing connectivity and maintaining biodiversity within an urban environment. This proposed policy links directly to target 12 of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), ‘ensure biodiversity-inclusive urban planning’, and the GBF’s third pillar, ‘Taking further targeted action for specific threatened species that require bespoke actions, as some of our most threatened species will not be reached solely by the broad-stroke approaches that are central to achieving the species abundance targets.’
The petition has enabled me to raise awareness, quantify the general public’s support and has given me a formal platform to share this proposal with the Government. It also illustrates the need for councils, house builders, ecologists, and politicians to actively support the use of swift bricks. Our home is their home.