Swifts are as old as the Rocky Mountains, evolving seven epochs ago. For 60 million years they’ve reigned in the skies. Each year they fly for around 6,500 hours nonstop, yet when they come home, they come home to us: adults return to the exact same nesting cavity in our walls every spring. But we’ve been progressively blocking their homes and now they’re on the brink. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates their current breeding population is fewer than 45,000 pairs. Other cavity nesting species are endangered too. So I decided to act on their behalf, creating a campaign asking the government to mandate “swift bricks” in new builds. Without them there is no guaranteed nesting habitat for birds reliant on building cavities anywhere in the UK – and there never will be. We are inadvertently destroying their natural cavity nesting sites through renovation, demolition and insulation, while climate mitigation measures mean modern buildings will never provide natural homes for birds.

I’ve played by government rules, collecting the necessary 100,000 signatures in six months for my petition to table a parliamentary debate – for which politicians were unanimous in their support. But the government said no. Zac Goldsmith, a life peer, tabled a swift brick amendment in the first attempt in British history to safeguard swifts, birds we love so much we’ve dubbed them our “icons of summer”. Lord Goldsmith’s amendment got cross-party whip support. The government again said no. We managed to get a meeting with the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, who invited us to a second meeting. We met the minister for housing and members of the housebuilding lobby groups, enabling the industry to raise concerns. There were no objections. That was in early February. Despite no barriers stopping Michael Gove greenlighting the proposal already drafted (a swift brick requirement in building regulations that isn’t even radical since other countries have done it), we are still waiting.

In my campaign for swift bricks I have walked through London naked, twice. First to launch the petition (how else would a nobody reach the almost impossible target?) and secondly to the meeting at the Home Office, with Zac Goldsmith by my side in an unprecedented show of alliance, to remind the government that swifts’ existence is at stake.

Out of 67 million of us in the UK, Gove is the one person with the power to save swifts

The conservation world, including the government’s own environmental advisors Natural England, supports our proposal. So do the many politicians who are lobbying Michael Gove, because out of 67 million of us in the UK, he is the one person with the power to save swifts. So why does Gove not want to stop the sky from falling down? After all, swift bricks don’t just safeguard swifts and other endangered species, they preserve our most accessible touch point to nature: urban birds. Birds boost our moods, connect generations, give us doses of joy and the invaluable gift of pulling us into the moment. Is the lack of government action apathy or ignorance? Is some bird-phobic bureaucrat misunderstanding the distinct and urgent need to mandate swift bricks? This is not just a supportive environmental measure for new builds, such as hedgehog holes and bee bricks. Swift bricks are an urgently essential measure to save swifts from extinction.

I feel like I am on my hands and knees searching for hope. Worse, I have recurring dreams about Michael Gove. Why the hell am I – a writer turned accidental campaigner – doing this? Because my heart is made of feathers. Two birds redefined my life while living in the rural Africa, (immortalised in my nature memoir Fledgling): a finch who spent hours weaving nests out of my hair, earnestly attacking the mole on my face and demanding the smallest of strokes under his tiny chin before rejoining his flock. And a swift, a fallen feathered star who I hunted insects for. I’m galvanised by an incorruptible loyalty to birds, knowing that 43 per cent of UK birds are threatened with extinction, but these birds who share our walls – our very closest wild neighbours – are the ones we can help save with a simple brick. Caring has become my most functional asset because it conjured the instinct to protect. It also triggered passion.

Passion is a word that has crept into daily vocabulary, describing people’s enthusiasm for anything from frothy coffee to power walking, but the definition of the word is “strong and barely controllable emotion”. From the Latin pati meaning “to suffer”, it is also defined as “a feeling of intense enthusiasm towards, or compelling desire for someone or something”. Since the Bible it’s been used to cement the idea that if you love something enough you will do anything for it even if that causes you pain or anguish. Its meaning feels, regardless of religious views, like the epitome of faith. What is rooted in this word is the essence of standing up for what you believe in and actually doing something. My campaign motto is “Passion is a Superpower” and we all have the opportunity to prove this. Write to Michael Gove asking him to save swifts: Michael Gove, SOS, DLUHC, 2 Marsham St, London, SW14 PDF. When the general election comes, we have the power to turn swift bricks into a vote determiner for iconic birds whose survival is at stake.

Hannah Bourne-Taylor is a nature author, ghostwriter, conservationist and bird campaigner, best known for memoir “Fledgling” and her solo campaign, The Feather Speech. Follow her on @WriterHannahBT

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April 2024, Columns, Viewpoint

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