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A swallow in flight

We've noticed a significant decline in the number of swallows with us this summer, and it seems we're not alone. Paul Stancliffe from the British Trust for Ornithology has said that the swallows are here, "but seem to be in much lower numbers than we would expect".

A summer without swallows feels somehow incomplete - so why are there so few swallows in the UK this year? As it turns out, there are a number of possible explanations.

 

When do swallows normally arrive in the UK?

Swallows tend to spend their summers in Europe, then migrate to Africa when the temperature begins to drop.

Usually, hundreds of thousands of swallows arrive in the UK in April and remain here throughout the summer months. During this time, the swallows breed and raise their young - then, in September, they depart for their winter homes in South Africa and Namibia.

A swallow's annual journey is long and full of peril. For more information, we recommend reading the RSPB's guide to swallow migration.

 

The view from the farm

Our numbers were greatly reduced on the farm this year, and the swallows that did arrive wanted to nest in our old sheep shed. This was the first time they had ever checked out that tin-roofed shed, and I was really concerned that it would be too hot to raise a family successfully. At nest-building time, the weather was so dry and arid that there was no mud around for the swallows to create their nests - this despite me going out daily with buckets of water to create a mud patch for them!

In the end, the swallows took over an old pigeon nest. It's made of twigs collected by pigeons, and it is definitely the scruffiest swallow nest I have ever seen. Has anyone else seen swallows taking over disused nests from other birds this year?

Still, both parents were incredibly attentive, and last week (31 July) three young swallows fledged from the nest to the long wire that runs between our shed lights. The parents then encouraged them to shimmy along the wire to the corner of the barn, where they could practise some very short flights. They hopped on and off our farm machinery, and the parents returned regularly with something to eat.

The three youngsters stayed in the barn, flying from the wire to various bits of machinery and beams, and then - four days after they had left the nest - something amazing happened. Suddenly, about six or seven adult swallows flew into the barn, seemingly from nowhere, and created a huge noisy stir! The next thing I knew, the youngsters had joined them and left the security of the barn for the great outdoors, and my heart was filled with pride. Go little swallows!

I think the sudden influx of all those swallows was the encouragement the youngsters needed to leave; there is safety in numbers, after all. It was such a wonderful spectacle and something I will never forget.

Nevertheless, there have been noticeably fewer swallows than usual this summer. So why is this?

 

What happened this year?

Here is one possible reason for the apparent decline in UK swallow activity: back in April, it was reported that thousands of swallows had been killed by high winds near Greece.

Maria Ganoti of Greek wildlife conservation society Anima called it a "major disaster", and it's certainly possible that this event has had a knock-on effect on the British swallow population.

But Horatio Clare, writing for the Daily Mail, pointed out that "birds in born in Britain are unlikely to have been affected by those tempests [because] our swallows tend to cross Spain and Italy".

 

Other possible explanations

Here are some other factors that may have impacted the number of swallows British bird watchers are seeing in 2020:

  • Lack of water en route to the UK
  • Reduced insect populations (less food for the swallows)
  • Pollution and pesticides
  • Humans hunting and trapping swallows

Worryingly, it appears that a lot of people were asking the same question - 'Where are all the swallows this year?' - one year ago. Here's another Mail Online article from May 2019, parts of which seem eerily similar to the articles that are being written now:

"But in recent days, a troubling question has been asked with ever-greater concern from one end of the country to the other: where are all the swallows this year? There are none on the small farm in Cambridgeshire where I was born, and where I still live and work. There have been swallows on the farm for most of my life and when I was a boy, their nests got well into double figures each summer." - Robin Page for The Mail on Sunday, 5 May 2019

And now here we are, well into the summer of 2020, and again there's a noticeable lack of swallows about.

So are we just going to have to get used to this? Will the consequences of global climate change continue to drive down the number of swallows who make it to Great Britain each summer? Well, there may be a ray of hope: according to Angela Turner, author of Swallow, the UK's swallow population "was very low in the eighties, but increased". In her opinion, "it's too early to say whether this decline is a blip or a continuing trend".

Got a question about birds? Ask our resident vet!

Photo from Pixabay