Are nets to stop swallows nesting any way to treat the natural world? | Kate Blincoe

Our swallows are now returning in the UK after completing their 5,000-mile migratory flight from southern Africa, where they spend the winter. This year some faced a very inhospitable welcome with their traditional nesting areas netted over.

Tesco destroyed a successful swallow breeding site in the eaves above a trolley park in Norwich after complaints from customers about bird droppings. The supermarket washed the nests away with power hoses, and then pest-control workers fitted extensive netting, making the birds’ summer home for many years completely inaccessible.

This wasn’t just a matter of inconvenience for the swallows. These beautiful birds, with their long, elegantly forked tails, return to the same breeding sites year after year, so could easily become trapped in netting trying to reach their usual places to nest and as a result, would fail to lay any eggs. This would be tragic for a species that has faced declines of between 20% and 50% across Europe since the 1970s.

This life-and-death situation led to a campaign to get Tesco to restore the nesting sites. Local conservationist Chris Skinner had commended the branch on working around the swallows in previous years. However, it transpired that the supermarket had become increasingly concerned about health and safety because of bird droppings falling on to the trolleys.

Let’s be clear, none of us want poo of any sort near our food; however, simple solutions were suggested. These included fitting a cheap wooden plank under the nests to catch any mess, or – and how’s this for radical? – temporarily relocating the trolley park. These alternatives were rejected.

But soon after a tweet I posted about the problem was shared many thousands of times, a campaign to save the swallows was launched, with hundreds of customers pledging to a Tesco boycott.

Tesco initially responded by saying: “The netting which has been installed at our Norwich Harford Bridge superstore has been specifically created for swallows to encourage them to nest in alternative locations.” This was nonsensical to anyone with a basic understanding of nature – exactly how would this netting “encourage” them to nest elsewhere, overriding their precise natural instinct to return to their “home”?

The RSPB offered to help Tesco find a “sensible” solution. Soon, even a South African business magazine had picked up on the story – they were their swallows too, after all.

Less than 48 hours after my initial tweet, last week, Tesco capitulated, announcing it would take the nets down temporarily to allow the swallows to nest, which, thankfully, happened soon after.


Young swallows. Photograph: Alamy

But the incident in the Tesco trolley park is not an isolated one. Netting nature is a nasty trend that puts money and convenience above all else. Developers in Surrey were recently criticised for netting trees to prevent birds nesting, and on Tuesday, there were protests in Darlington after a sparrow was found dead in a tree net. Meanwhile, in north Lincolnshire, a construction company netted hedgerows while seeking planning permission, affecting birds such as robins, chaffinches and blackbirds, and attracting the ire of wildlife presenter Chris Packham and radio host Jeremy Vine, who discussed the issue this month with the construction company on Vine’s BBC 2 radio show.

Pesky, messy birds are protected by law once they are nesting, but if you get the nets up and stop them doing so, then you are acting legally while avoiding any sort of delay or future concession to nature.

In Surrey, a campaign spearheaded by novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison got the nets removed. And a parliamentary petition to make the netting of hedgerows illegal has just been started, with more than 30,000 signatures, and rising fast, at the time of writing.

Humans and nature need to be able to coexist. Sometimes that will mean tolerating a bit of mess – but surely we have enough flexibility, ingenuity and simple cleaning methods to deal with this. On occasions it will require organisations to seek timely advice from conservation experts in order to balance their needs with those of living creatures, rather than seeking to eradicate them.

Amid the global environmental problems of plastic pollution and climate change, there is something so tangible about being able to make a difference on a local scale. Using nets to prevent the new life of springtime is so vile and pernicious that it has become a symbol of all we are getting wrong for nature: a nest behind mesh.

I will be checking on the progress of the Tesco swallows as they return, blissfully unaware of the fuss they have caused. You can look out for swallows, too, wherever you are in the UK.

The campaigns in Norwich and Surrey must act as a sharp reminder that acting within the letter of the law is not enough for our struggling natural world, and that people will act. We need to celebrate our contact with wildlife, which increasingly has to live alongside us in urban and suburban places. Here’s hoping for webcams, not nets; for schoolchildren visiting, instead of pest control; and beautiful vertical gardens and swallow nest cups to replace the blank sterility of a pressure-washed wall.

Kate Blincoe writes for the Guardian Country Diary


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