I was thinking back today to the numerous reports I’ve dealt with of occupied and partially-constructed sand martin nest holes being destroyed. This is normally occurs when they decide to nest on sand faces that are being worked. When work is ongoing the sand martins are unable to begin to excavate their nest holes but over a weekend when the machinery is idle they can tunnel a fair distance into the sand. As soon as they begin to excavate, their nest holes are protected by law. The law is often ignored when the machinery springs into action on a Monday morning and often the sand face is worked again, destroying the birds’ labours. Sand martins begin nesting in March and these incidents are well worth reporting to your local police wildlife crime officer.
House martins seem to have an even more difficult time trying to nest, and the following is an excerpt from my book, A Lone Furrow:
The early summer of 2009 must have broken all records for the reporting of house martins’ nests being damaged. Most were single nests and were dealt with by a warning, though there comes a time when warnings must be replaced by reporting for prosecution. Invariably they resulted from calls to us by neighbours, disgusted by the extremely un-neighbourly conduct of poking a nest down with a long stick in more accessible places, climbing a ladder and reaching up with a stick in the case of some of the higher nests, or in some cases hosing the nest down with a pressure hose. In two cases neighbours had photographed the culprits up a ladder; in one case with a stick and in one case with a hose. This was great evidence not only of the illegal activity but of the identity of the person involved.
That the neighbours were willing to go to court and give evidence surprised me. They had maybe not thought out the consequences of being shunned by some neighbours while being praised by others. This was a factor in our decision to deal with these cases by warning. There was an example from an earlier case on which we could base our decision-making. A warning had been issued in the same circumstances the previous year in a small rural hamlet of brand new houses. Some advice was given to the householder to glue a CD in the apex of the roof, which would prevent the birds nesting the following year since the mud used for their nest wouldn’t stick to the CD. News had obviously spread and when I went round the hamlet the following summer half of the houses had CDs stuck in the apex, while the other half, their occupants more sympathetic to the birds sharing the outside of their house, all had house martin nests with parents busily flying to and fro feeding chicks. What frustrates me somewhat is that I would love to have house martins at my house, of similar structure, and they won’t come!
In a more serious set of circumstances we submitted a case to the procurator fiscal. A visitor to a holiday complex at a Perthshire hotel looked out of his window one morning to see a man with a ladder and a long pole going round the hundred or so holiday houses within the hotel grounds. He had obviously been sent to destroy the house martin nests and this seemed like a regular routine. The man called on his wife to watch what was happening and we had our two witnesses. The couple had gone home to England before reporting the incident to me but only one day had elapsed.
I passed the investigation to two of our local officers, PC Greg Samuel, a new divisional wildlife crime officer, and PC Ian Thomson, an experienced officer enthusiastic at investigating any allegation of crime, especially if a bit different from the norm. Their initial investigation suggested that there were three suspects: the person who had carried out the destruction of the nests, a maintenance operative; his boss, the maintenance manager, and, in turn his boss, the general manager of the hotel. They arranged to interview them the following day and I said that I would attend an hour or so earlier, photograph any destroyed nests and meet them at some stage after their interviews of the suspects.
I was quite amazed at the number of nests that appeared to have been destroyed. Just about every house had the remains of a house martin nest either in the apex or somewhere under an overhang of the roof. They were in the form of a horseshoe-shaped series of small mud balls stuck to the building. That the mud was dark and fresh told me that in most of the cases this was a nest from the current year that had been knocked down and was being rebuilt. I photographed about 70 or 80 of these before the memory card in my camera was full, and I had only gone round half of the houses.
It was late June in 2009 and all of these nests should have been complete and have had young house martin beaks at the entrances waiting to be fed. There was only a handful in that much more satisfying state and it was obvious from their location that they were causing no mess to any of the visitors to the hotel. The remainder were above places where the birds’ droppings would be falling on windows or on decking used by the visitors for sitting out if we ever got a dry, sunny day. I could see the hotel’s point, but what was happening was illegal. There were hundreds of house martins flying around; most, I imagined, very frustrated at having flown thousands of miles from North Africa and having no progeny to show for their massive expenditure of energy.
When I walked around the hotel complex there was a good selection of wildlife. In some trees at the edge of the grounds there were bat boxes and bird nesting boxes. A smallish pond held two mallard drakes and I hoped that the ducks were nesting nearby or were rearing a brood of ducklings, though for mallard – wildfowl that begin laying in February and March – the season was getting on a bit. If they were on eggs it would be their second, if not their third, attempt to breed. A moorhen, with its red frontal shield above the beak clearly visible, shared the pond and swam towards the far side, constantly flicking its tail in the same manner as the next bird I saw, a grey wagtail, which flitted about above the small stream that ran from the pond. I knew its nest wouldn’t be there as I was aware that it prefers to nest above fast flowing water. I also knew there would be good mix of wildlife under the water that I couldn’t see. In the trees I saw many of the commoner woodland birds, plus a tree creeper, making its way up the bark of a tree in its quest for insect life, and a red squirrel. The squirrel, on seeing me, made for the higher branches but segments of cones dropping to the ground told me that I hadn’t put it off its food. The hotel clearly liked wildlife. Except house martins!
From the interviews of the three suspects it transpired that the destruction of the house martin nests was a twice-weekly event, so that the nests would not be completed and no eggs would be destroyed. One of the suspects said that this had been taking place for at least three years. Another commented that house martin numbers were getting a bit less, which was hardly surprising.
The case was reported to the procurator fiscal, who, I think rightly, did not proceed with the case against the two employees but prosecuted the general manager; the person in overall charge. He pleaded guilty and was fined £300. His defence solicitor had said that ‘there are hundreds of nests in the hotel grounds and only specific ones were targeted. The economics of the hotel didn’t allow daily cleaning of the bird mess, which would have been needed to keep the matter under control.’ He hoped that the birds would move to a more convenient nesting site. I wondered how this might come about? I was also amused at a comment in a local newspaper after the case that the manager ‘was working with a police wildlife officer to come up with alternative solutions. This includes putting CDs in the eves to discourage the birds nesting there, building bird boxes in trees and feeding stations on a pond.’ CDs have been proved to be a success, but I’ve yet to hear of a house martin using a nest box or where feeding stations on a pond may prevent a repeat of the 2009 experience!
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