Oxford the site of England's new 'Swift City'

The RSPB and its partners were granted £83,700 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a new Oxford ‘Swift City’. The two-year project will maintain current swift nesting sites in the city and add 300 further sites onto new and existing buildings, in an effort to combat a decline in the swift population in recent years. 

The Swift City project builds on work that Jocelyne Hughes (the Department's Director of the Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques programme) and Chris Mason (Swift Project Officer at Cherwell District Council) have been doing over the past three years in Oxford: taking walks around Oxford to raise awareness of swifts (Apus apus), what the birds look like and how to identify them from swallows and house martins, where to find their nesting holes, how to protect them, and who to contact if you do see swifts.

"The HLF funding will provide a wider context for our work, bringing together conservation organisations in Oxford, including the RSPB who are coordinating it, who are working towards swift conservation," said Jocelyne. "This is a fantastic project which will hopefully benefit the birds and stop their numbers from falling even more."

This iconic aerial migrant bird, which lands only to breed and can fly at least 560 miles a day gathering food during the breeding season, nests almost exclusively in urban areas. But the birds face an uncertain future. Numbers in the UK have fallen by 38% since 1994.

One possible cause of the swifts’ decline may be losses of nesting sites, as old buildings are renovated and new builds do not include spaces for them to nest. To address this, the project will research Oxford’s present swift populations and nest sites, and use this information to work closely with builders and planners to maintain them and also incorporate new sites into the city’s infrastructure.

Oxford has a long scientific and cultural association with swifts. The swift colony nesting at the Oxford University Natural History Museum has been intensively studied by the Edward Grey Institute of Ornithology since 1948; one of the longest continuous studies of a single bird species in the world. 

The Oxford community will be vital to the success of the project. Volunteers will be needed to help monitor swift numbers. Wildflower plots will be planted in green spaces and gardens to increase public awareness of the need to rebuild food-webs across habitats, and a showpiece ‘Swift Tower’ is planned, that will combine new nest sites with a public arts project.

Charlotte Kinnear, local RSPB Conservation Officer, said: “Like much urban wildlife, swifts are under pressure in the UK. HLF funding of this exciting project gives us the opportunity to study swift nesting and feeding habits more closely and to involve the local community to monitor and protect them. We hope that as well as improving the outlook for swifts, lessons will be learnt which can be applied to species recovery plans for other urban wildlife.” 

Not only is the project about swifts, but it’s also about providing habitat for air-borne insects - the main food of swifts.

"Part of the project will be to encourage planting in a wildlife friendly way and to maintain a steady supply of insects in the summer months, when the birds are in residence in Oxford," said Jocelyne Hughes

Starting in January 2017, the RSPB will work alongside partners including Oxford University, The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford City Council, Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre, Environment Resources Management and the local Wildlife Trust to improve the breeding prospects of swifts in the city.

Chris Jarvis, Education Officer at The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, said: “We already provide an extensive educational programme for local schools and are very much looking forward to extending this work with the Swift City project. It will also enable us to introduce more children to our resident swifts during the summer!”

Mai Jarvis, Environmental Quality Team Manager, Oxford City Council said: “We are delighted that the Oxford Swift City has been chosen for support from the HLF. We believe that by involving the local community in the project we will help to connect the city’s residents more closely to their natural environment and increase their awareness of the importance of urban wildlife.”

Jocelyne and Chris, who have led 'swift walks' each summer for the past few years, will continue their walks around Oxford in 2017 as part of the project.

All of the organisations involved in this project would like to thank HLF for their very generous support, without which this project would not be able to happen.

Photo credit: Graham Catley

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Published 20 September 2016