In an early morning walk with Molly the dog yesterday I saw my first two swallows of the summer. They had flown all the way from sub-Saharan Africa most likely to nest in old farm buildings near where I stay. Only the buildings had been removed last autumn. No doubt it will find another suitable place nearby, probably within a nearby sawmill, to nest, but the sight of the swallow and the removal of the buildings reminded me of a similar situation in Perthshire about which I wrote in A Lone Furrow. The situation then was as follows:
‘In one completely genuine case a lady contacted me to say that a roof was just about to be taken off an old farm steading under renovation, and that the building was full of nesting swallows. I was due to be passing the building that afternoon in any case so I said that I would look in and assess the situation.
The building was a long two-storey building. On ground level there were arches, now bricked up, that had at one time been part of a cart shed. There was also an opening halfway along the building that led through to further buildings behind. On the upper level the small windows were long gone, leaving square openings through which I could see the graceful swallows with their long ribbon tails coming and going. There were piles of new wood stacked up in the yard, and a two-storey portakabin office block, beside which I parked. I sought out the site foreman, an affable fellow, and told him why I was there. He agreed that the roof was coming off within the next week and told me about the plans for the old building to be converted to luxury houses at considerable cost. He was aware of birds coming and going from the building, but didn’t know what kind they were or why they were entering the building.
The foreman agreed to give me a tour, and the first thing I spotted as we entered the opening that led through to the buildings at the back was a swallow’s nest on a ledge, with a semi-circle of fledgling swallows peeping over the edge awaiting the parents’ return with a beakful of flies. He’d never noticed this nest, which, for someone not aware of birds, didn’t surprise me. We continued through the building and counted twenty swallows’ nests, most of which seemed active, on the ground and upper levels. Some nests had well-grown chicks, and at others a swallow that had been brooding eggs or very small chicks flew off with a tswit, tswit, as our presence disturbed its routine. In one nest that I could reach there were 5 white eggs with a bit of dark speckling at one end, and in the elongated shape typical of swallows’ eggs. The eggs were nestling in a layer of white feathers, gathered by the parent and providing a warm buffer between the brooding bird and the caked mud which was the nest structure. I showed this to the foreman and he seemed sympathetic.
The dialogue relating to this nest went along the following lines:
“So how long will it take for these eggs to hatch and the chicks to leave the nest?”
“Depending on how long the bird has been brooding them, it could be anything between three and maybe five weeks.”
“Well it’s near the end of May now. We’ll put off taking off the roof until the end of June.”
“No, that won’t do. The nests are all at different stages. Some have chicks just about ready to leave, then the swallow will have another clutch in the same nest after that.”
“Well how long will all that take. There’s a lot of money tied up in this development. These are going to be very expensive houses.”
“To be safe you’d need to wait till the end of August, maybe even a wee bit into September, till all the nests are clear.”
The earlier sympathetic expression changed to one that seemed to be a mixture of apprehension and determination.
“No. I’m really sorry but we can’t wait that long. This is a big job and we need to crack on with it.”
“That’s OK, but you need to be aware that the penalty for every egg or chick that is destroyed carries a fine of £5,000 and/or a period in jail of up to six months.”
Silence for a minute while the face changed to consternation.
“Well……well, we’ll better just wait till September then.”
I thought that was a wise choice. We went through the building again and since there were few nests on the ground level, we agreed a plan that would allow some of the work to be carried out immediately. All the nests on the ground floor were at one end. Swallows are reasonably tolerant of humans so it was agreed that a tarpaulin could be put up separating off the much smaller part of the building with the nests, still with access to the swallows through an open window to the rear, thus allowing work to be done on the rest of the ground level. It was as much of a compromise as could be done within the law.
I visited several times after that, and as other bits of the building became clear of active nests other development work was given the green light. My last visit was in the last week of August, at which time I was able to say that the use of all of the nests had ended for the season. I thanked the foreman for being so accommodating (even though I’d virtually been holding a gun to his head) and arranged for a local newspaper to come in and cover the good-news story. This gave the company, Haddens of Aberuthven, some very good publicity which I’ve no doubt stood them in good stead for future business as being seen as environmentally friendly. The swallows benefited; the company benefited in the long run, and some swallows still managed to find a suitable nesting place in the by-now completed development the following year. The biological term symbiosis almost fits the bill. Even yet I get calls from Haddens asking advice before they embark on any development that might have complications for wildlife’.
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