Every spring we used to face a recurring dilemma here at Riverford. One day in early April, the barn door would roll up to reveal lines of swallows perched in the alder trees opposite. On some secret signal, suddenly they would swoop in through the open doors and spiral up into the roof space of our box packing barn, searching out the old nest sites to which they return every year.
Not long ago our packhouse was little more than an open barn and the birds would nest along the support beams that held up the roof, dozens of them twittering and swirling above the box lines. One nest that was visible from our upstairs office window was checked on daily for a whole summer, as the enterprising pair that occupied it successfully raised two broods of raucous chicks.
Watching the chicks totter on the edge of the nest before launching into their rather shaky maiden flight was a proud moment for our corner of the office. We’ve grown fond of the birds and see them as an integral part of life at Riverford.
There is however, one slight problem. They poo. A lot. Indeed, one year there were so many nests above the box lines with so many chicks lobbing their waste over the side, that we had to evacuate the line to a safe distance. Bird excrement is a serious food safety concern; their guts are a well-documented source of food poisoning bacteria such as Salmonella. Not to mention the unpleasantness it presented for Riverford employees, who were subjected to daily bouts of aerial bombardment. The situation posed a tricky problem for a company looking to ensure their food was safe for consumption, whilst trying to keep ecological disruption to a minimum.
Despite swallows and their nests being protected, the Wildlife and Countryside Act states that: “An authorised person may kill or injure a protected bird if they can show that their action was necessary for the purposes of preserving public health or public or air safety or preventing spread of disease.”
Legally, there was nothing to prevent Riverford from bringing in a falcon to attack the birds and scare them off, or from destroying their empty nests during the winter. Adding to the quandary were the Soil Association’s organic regulations, which discourage wanton habitat destruction.
Again though, food safety law takes precedence over organic standards. For years we dithered over how best to tackle the problem, not helped by our Environmental Health officer’s own position. “I do rather like them,” our technical and food safety manager recalls him saying during one visit, “but you should probably try and do something about it.”
Netting was considered as an alternative, but the scale of netting required to cover the roof space of the packhouse made it prohibitive, not to mention unethical. Eventually as part of a new packhouse and office expansion, a ceiling was put in above the box lines, sealing off many of the beams where the worst offending nests were located.
In consultation with the RSPB, a number of replacement nests were installed in an extension near the back of the barn to provide alternative nest sites. A few old nests remain inside the packhouse, but these are located far up in the eaves and are a safe distance from the veg box lines.
So the box lines are safe from contamination now and the birds still have plenty of nesting sites available. But this illustrates the challenges faced by businesses and individuals who want to minimise their ecological impact, but must also work within legal and economic frameworks that will always give precedence to human safety and efficiency over the environment.
It is easy to think that preventing a few birds from nesting won’t have much impact overall, but even this small act feeds in to the wider gauntlet of challenges facing these birds. The double impact of climate change and the rapidly growing populations of sub-Saharan African countries means that much of their winter habitat is being lost. The Sahara Desert expands every year, making their migration route more perilous.
Even if they complete the journey across the desert and the Mediterranean, on many of the small islands and oases that provide pivotal resting stages, hunters armed with guns, nets and glue lie in wait for the exhausted birds. Despite all this, many will survive to fly all the way back to the same nesting site where they were born. Some, however, will return only to find their nests covered up or destroyed, and they must start again elsewhere.
In southern Africa, the impact of this becomes more visible every year, as I witnessed growing up there. In October, the red evening sky above the lakes and waterways of southern Africa used to turn dark with thousands of twittering swallows as they congregated in huge numbers to roost for the night, spiralling into the reeds like tornados as the sun set. Lately however, the flocks are diminished, with fewer numbers every year. The increasingly erratic rains come late and finish early, and soon the journey back across the rainforests, desert, sea and mountains must begin again.
Their future may be unclear, but one thing that is certain is that these incredible little birds will always have a home at Riverford.