Nature post-lockdown

1/3 The House Martins of Chatsworth House

Like almost everyone else in the nature community I have been fascinated to see how wildlife has come to the fore during lockdown. As the human project, with all its deafening white noise has receded, so has the rest of life stepped tentatively forward. Bird song has expanded and wild animals seem to have ventured into our space.

What does it portend for the future? What breakthrough could occur because of this resurgence of interest in nature? Will the British people discover a new relationship, valuing other species – flowers, birds, insects – for the life-enhancing joy that they bring, for their ability to buffer us against stress and enrich our lives when times are tough? But also when times are good? In a three-part post I tackle a number of issues and propose ways in which things could change.

Firstly, however, I want to highlight a local banishing of wildlife that went largely unreported during lockdown. In the late days of April, just as spring migrants were returning to this country, the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust highlighted a deeply sad and, to my mind, regressive measure undertaken at Chatsworth House by its owners.

The latter had sought permission to place nets over parts of their palace to prevent birds nesting in the statuary. They didn’t initially know what species they were dealing with, nor it seems did the ecological consultants, who had been called in to assess the matter (as is legally required when protected birds are to be stopped from nesting). Nor it seems did the Peak Park Planning Board, which passed the decision and approved the netting in the absence of this clear understanding.

As it turned out they were house martins. This is one one of the most charismatic of our summer visitors, famous for its pied plumage, swooping flight, conversational chattering calls and for a mud-cup nest that may have inspired early humans to the possibilities of clay and straw. Who knows?

What I do know is that house martins once nested in Derbyshire cliffs and caves as they must have done for hundreds of thousands of years until they saw the breeding possibilities entailed in our own homes. Their arrival in spring – about the first week of April now – is something of a miracle given that they complete this transcontinental journey and weigh about 19gm. Here’s a little piece I published in the Guardian which subsequently appeared in my book A Claxton Diary: Further Fields Notes from a Small Planet whose paperback version arrives next month click here for more details.

At Chatsworth, house martins have probably nested since the mid seventeenth century when the house was first built. However, when they applied to net their walls it seems as if all parties to the action were not certain if they were swallows, swifts or house martins. What was indisputable was that all three of these candidate birds were summer visitors. Why would you conduct a survey in December, on which you would base your decisions, at precisely the time when the birds were not present? Yet they did.

The nets were approved and legally placed over the statuary and as compensation a series of replacement artificial nests, initially it seems for swallows, and then, later, when it was plain house martins were involved, for those too. No one disputes that all parties acted legally. Yet it does beg questions of whether netting bird sites to prevent them breeding should be sanctioned in law. And Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts Craig Bennett thinks it is time to end it. I agree. It is a heartless gesture creeping into British planning procedure. The judgement (attributed to Gandhi) that a nation is measured by the way it treats its animals, seems deeply relevant.

What I challenge most is the meaningfulness of the legal process. That’s what this post is about. The problem with the due process at work in this case is that it always tackles the detail as they pertain to a specific circumstance. It is a process that is essentially ahistorical and blind to context. It assumes that each decision is equal to the last ad infinitum, and yet we know that house-martin numbers are shrinking at an alarming rate and have declined by 60 per cent in 40 years.

Thus, in effect, every time one makes a fresh decision that impacts adversely upon house martins their plight worsens. Every year overall house martins are doing worse in Britain. With each situation the legal guideline becomes less tenable. That is the background picture against which the Chatsworth decision was made. It highlights for me how wrong the decision was, especially by an agency, the Peak Park Planning Board, supposedly tasked with protecting nature in a national park. When will we recognise that in the situation we find ourselves –  where we live among a diminished and diminishing natural environment – this decision-making process is not adequate?

What could be done, as in the case of the house martins, is that where a species has declined by 25 per cent or more in 20 years, then no detrimental action could be taken other than in truly exceptional circumstances. At that point alternatives must be sought. And those could be based on a principle of net gain.

Yes, take action, but in a way that increases house martins at the site while solving your so-called problem with stone damage. It could have been a phased process, based upon a true survey in the correct season (summer), with genuine data of bird numbers and of the ways that they used the target stonework. Then you could make it a publicity campaign that enhances Chatsworth’s reputation for good wildlife practice. Make an opportunity, in short, of your so-called ‘problem’.

Once you had known how many house martins there were, they could have provided artificial nest sites elsewhere and then monitored the adoption of these alternatives. Instead of the ‘we’ve-put-up-boxes-surely-the-birds-will-see-the-need-to-move-from-the-stonework-to-the-new-sites’ approach. Wild animals don’t always know what humans plan for them to do! By a process of trial and error and incremental exclusion the birds could have been coaxed gradually from the house site. By providing more nests than were used previously you could have expanded house martin numbers at Chatsworth, where, as I point out, they have probably bred since the house was first built.

Are these wonderful birds not as as integral to the site and to all its cultural meanings as the very statuary that required such stringent protection? In fact, I would argue that in a land that is the 29th most denatured on Earth, we should privilege the living fabric over the lifeless infrastructure. For me, house martins are more beautiful, more engaging and more culturally significant than dragon-shaped stonework. That’s the issue of my next post.