Swifts are in serious decline across the country – but villagers are doing their bit to help with a heart-warming project based high up in the belfry of a North-East church. PETER BARRON reports

FOR many, the sight and sound of swifts darting noisily across the sky as they swoop in from Central Africa, heralds the start of summer.

But, with numbers being halved over the past 25 years, these fascinating little birds need our help – such as the tender loving care that’s become part of the service at All Saints Church, in Hurworth-on-Tees, near Darlington.

High up in the belfry, villagers are taking what might be called swift action.

Up two ladders through the ceiling of the ringing room, 32 swift nesting boxes have been lovingly created and installed by Ken Pattison, a villager for the past 51 years and member of the church.

The boxes are designed to be accessed through small holes in the louvre, and audio equipment has also been installed to emit the screaming mating cry of a swift. Timed to fill the air from 6am to midday, and 4pm to 9pm every day, the aim is to entice inmates.

Swifts love to be up high and nest in small holes, so church towers provide perfect nesting locations, though Ken admits the project had its challenges once he’d been given the go-ahead by the parochial church council.

“It was hard work getting the boxes up there because it’s a tight climb, but it’s a case of trying to do our bit to help, and spread the word in the hope that other churches will follow suit,” says Ken, a former Head Wrightson engineer, who built the boxes in his garage.

He readily admits that the project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Mike Hodgson, Tower Captain of a team of a dozen or so bellringers at All Saints. Not only did he approve access to the bell tower, but he managed health and safety during the installation, and mucked in with lifting and drilling too.

“None of it could have happened without Mike – he was supportive right from the beginning,” acknowledges Ken, ex-chairman of the parish council.

But isn’t it likely to be a bit noisy for parents trying to raise their offspring alongside six heavy bells being rung twice a week – Thursday evenings for practice, and Sunday mornings for the church services – as well as chimes that go off every quarter of an hour?

“Apparently, it doesn’t bother them – the swifts just adapt,” says Mike. “The bellringers are really excited about it too. We don’t mind sharing the belfry with swifts – it could be the start of something.”

Ken was one of Friends of the Community, which was renamed EPICH – Eco People In Croft and Hurworth – around 2005. The group started taking an interest in swifts thanks to his daughter, Ruth, whose husband, Richard Hurst, is Sustainability Education Adviser for Durham County Council, and a parish councillor at nearby Sadberge.

Ruth had read an article about the decline of swifts, was inspired to find out more, and she and Richard ended up putting nesting boxes on their house, along with a speaker playing recordings of the mating calls.

Their first encounter with a swift came soon afterwards when one flew into the bathroom. “It was just sitting there, so I just picked it up and it flew out again,” recalls Ruth.

In June last year, the couple saw two swifts check out one of their boxes, then return at the back end of May this year. A couple of chicks are now thought to have hatched.

A bigger breakthrough came when social housing in Sadberge was being re-roofed, and Ruth and Richard persuaded Darlington Borough Council and roofing company, Engie, to include holes and bird boxes into the scheme.

“It was an uphill struggle at times but it’s a start of raising awareness of how developers need to adapt,” says Ruth.

It’s all part of a package of activities taking place in Sadberge, including the creation of a small community woodland, and nurturing wildflower verges.

“We're facing a massive decline in biodiversity and we're just trying to do our own little bit to fight back,” says Ruth.

“It’s about giving nature a helping hand,” adds Richard.

Meanwhile, back in Hurworth, Ruth’s dad, is eagerly awaiting the first arrivals. Swifts come in three waves: the first fly in at the end of April and early May; another follows in late May and early June; then the younger birds appear in mid-July and early August.

With luck, swifts will find  the new facilities at All Saints Church this year and come back to breed in 2022.

Turning to the bigger picture, a ‘Swifts Local Network’ exists nationally to enable individuals and small groups to link up and share experiences, and there are ambitions to form a Darlington branch.

“If you’ve ever had the fortune to experience the closeness of a party of swifts screaming overhead, at breakneck speed on a warm summer’s evening, it’s just exhilarating,” says Ruth.

“To me, they represent pure joy, and how sad it would be if our children, and their children, didn’t have the opportunity to experience that feeling.”

It may be on a wing and a prayer, but it’s nice to know that the campaign to save the swift has taken flight in the villages of County Durham.


  • Swifts feed, mate, sleep and collect nest material entirely on the wing. The only time they land is when they return to the UK to nest.
  •  The young take four to five years to mature, during which they never land.
  • Swifts are the fastest birds on level flight and have been recorded flying at an astonishing 69 miles per hour.
  • Swifts are reliant on buildings in which to nest, but they are very clean, quiet house guests.
  • To build up their flight muscles before leaving the nest, young birds use their wings to do “press-ups”.

THANKS to Denis Pinnegar, editor of the excellent All Saints Hurworth Newsletter, for drawing my attention to the swifts story, and for the following extracts from parish notices:

Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping. Do bring your husbands.

The vicar unveiled the church's new campaign slogan last Sunday: "I upped my pledge – now up yours!"

Denis, I owe you a beer over the road from the church at The Bay Horse. We'll have a swift one.