‘I feel I’ve made a mark’: the man who built homes for 60,000 swifts

Retired salesman John Stimpson was so moved by the cries of birds unable to find nests, he decided to act. Now he has made enough boxes to house half the UK’s swifts

Retired salesman John Stimpson is 80 today. He will be celebrating with a cake at Slimming World this evening, followed by dinner with his family on Friday. Stimpson has one achievement in particular to mark: he has just completed his goal of building 30,000 swift boxes, which could house half of the UK’s breeding population of 60,000 pairs.

A sign advertises Ely Stimpson’s wildlife boxes for birds and hedgehogs
A sign advertises Stimpson’s wildlife homes, which are in use all over the UK, as well as in Sweden, France, Spain and Italy. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Stimpson has been making these peculiarly shaped boxes for 13 years using three saws and three drills in his garage attached to his bungalow near Ely in Cambridgeshire. What started as a retirement hobby morphed into a full-time job after orders increased, and he sometimes works 13-hour days to get them all done. He sells them for £20, which is enough to cover his costs.

He has also made about 700 boxes for barn owls and 800 for blue tits, finches, blackbirds and thrushes. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, a high percentage of swift boxes put up in the UK have been made by Stimpson. It wasn’t until he went through his order book last July that he realised quite how many he’d made.

“I don’t get bored. It’s amazing the number of life problems that have been solved in this garage. Your mind thinks over things,” he says. He hopes he will still be making the boxes when he is 99 (the age his mother is), but his pace will probably slow.

It is estimated that half the human-made nest boxes in the UK are inhabited, so Stimpson has probably housed 15,000 pairs of swifts. He talks about his achievement with modesty. “It’s a nice thought,” he says. “I’m quite proud of it at the end of the day. After failing academic exams in the 50s, I feel I’ve made a mark.”

Stimpson retired early, after working as a Weetabix salesman for 20 years then selling horticultural labels at Burall Bros for another 19. He has lived in the village of Wilburton for 51 years with his wife, Jill. He says it was thanks to his grandfather – who was a farm worker – taking him out that he learned to love nature. “I get so much pleasure from wildlife. Building these boxes is one way I can pay it back.”

Like many people, Stimpson has noticed an alarming loss of wildlife in his lifetime. The clouds of swifts, swallows and house martins of his childhood have disappeared. He feels angry that his two granddaughters cannot enjoy the abundance of the past.

Common swifts fly at dusk in Wiltshire
Common swifts fly at dusk in Wiltshire. Stimpson noticed how much scarcer the birds had become in his lifetime. Photograph: Nick Upton/Alamy

A loss of nesting sites is driving the decline of swifts in the UK, whose numbers are believed to have dropped by about 57% in 22 years. These migrants – which are now on the UK’s red list – are site specific, meaning each spring they come back to the same spot after flying thousands of miles from Africa. The problem is that lots of old barns and draughty houses have been upgraded and patched up and nesting sites have disappeared.

In spring, swifts screech when trying to find a place to nest and attract mates. Some birds will frantically flap their wings in vain, trying to find their old nesting spot. “To hear these birds screaming is quite distressing,” says Stimpson. “There’s no need for it. We can have our houses airtight, but we can still make homes for them,” he says.

Thirteen years ago no one was making swift boxes, so Stimpson started. “I’m not a carpenter, I’m a salesman, but I thought I’ll certainly give it a go,” he says. When he started he could make three a day, now on a really good day he can make 30. “I still want to make as many boxes as I can. I don’t like letting people down. My word is my bond,” he says. His boxes have been sent all over the UK, as well as to Sweden, France, Spain and Italy, and his computer is full of pictures of swifts in his boxes from grateful recipients.

A man holds a handmade swift box
Stimpson holds one of his handmade swift boxes. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Government and big wildlife organisations have too much bureaucracy, says Stimpson, and don’t end up doing much to stop wildlife loss. “We seem to have too many pen-pushers and not enough workers,” he says. “We could do an awful lot more than we’re doing. I don’t care if it’s Tory, Labour, Liberals or the Monster Raving Loony party. They need to address this.”

He believes local action groups are much more effective and has been working with a number of them, including the Suffolk Bird Group, who run Save our Suffolk Swifts (SOS Swifts), and Action for Swifts. “The number of swift groups that have started up in the last five to eight years is quite staggering. And they seem to go from strength to strength,” he says.

Volunteers want to emulate the success story of barn owls. In 1987, these farmland birds were at their lowest ebb with 4,500 breeding pairs. Thanks to volunteers, today there are about 12,000 breeding pairs in the UK, with 80% living in human-made boxes.

There are small success stories all over the country. Eddie Bathgate noticed Suffolk’s swift population crashing in the 1990s and 2000s, so he set up SOS Swifts in 2016. Now there are more than 1,200 of Stimpson’s boxes around the county, including 120 in Bathgate’s home town of Woodbridge, 27 of which hosted nesting pairs last summer.

In Cumbria, volunteers from Sedbergh Community Swifts have put up 140 boxes, all made by Stimpson, except for seven, which were copies made by local schoolchildren. An ad hoc survey of 99 boxes last summer found 46% of them were occupied.

“Swifts are the one thing where an individual can make a significant difference,” says Dick Newell, from Action for Swifts, who has 66 pairs of nesting swifts in his village of Landbeach in Cambridgeshire, 20 of them nesting on his house. “They are terrific birds. I’ve been an engineer. I like problem solving, and these birds present so many problems that we can solve.”

A common swift looks out of a nest box
‘Terrific birds’: a common swift looks out of one of Stimpson’s nest boxes in Norfolk. Photograph: Kevin Elsby/Alamy

Newell says developers should be obliged to put a swift brick in every new-build, and he has been working with housebuilding company Taylor Wimpey to make this happen. Exeter city council has started incorporating them into new buildings, as well as the Duchy of Cornwall, and local councils are getting on board. Others are working on bee bricks and hedgehog holes in new developments.

“John Stimpson has provided space for nature on a scale that I don’t know if anyone else has done, and he’s nearly 80,” says Bathgate. “We have to hope that someone will step into his shoes, although I don’t think he has any plans for retirement.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Phoebe Weston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Flightless bird provides 'spark of hope' amid environmental crisis
Ten species with improved numbers in IUCN red list unveiled amid call for more biodiversity focus at COP25

Fiona Harvey in Madrid

10, Dec, 2019 @1:54 PM

Article image
Writers and scientists celebrate UK's 67 most endangered birds
Book aims to raise awareness of conservation – and some much-needed funding

Phoebe Weston

21, Jan, 2020 @1:30 PM

Article image
New IUCN green status launched to help species ‘thrive, not just survive’
Conservation tool will focus on recovery efforts to give a fuller picture of threats to plant and animal populations

Patrick Greenfield

28, Jul, 2021 @6:01 AM

Article image
Farmers tempt endangered cranes back – by growing their favourite food
In Cambodia’s fertile Mekong delta, farmers are switching to the rice varieties loved by the world’s tallest flying bird to help stop its decline

Anne Pinto-Rodrigues

20, Nov, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Lost and found: twitchers delight at sweet song of the black-browed babbler
Since the bird was ‘rediscovered’ by accident in Borneo in 2020, ornithologists have returned to study the melodious species last documented more than 170 years ago

Graeme Green

01, Dec, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘Generally ignored’ species face twice the extinction threat, warns study
Wildlife with little data faces double the risk of dying out – which may mean many more species are endangered than previously thought

Phoebe Weston

04, Aug, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Finding fangs: new film exposes illicit trade killing off Bolivia’s iconic jaguar
Undercover documentary investigates the trafficking of Latin America’s big cat to meet demand in China

Dan Collyns in Lima

12, Jun, 2021 @6:01 AM

Article image
Wolves and brown bears among wildlife making ‘exciting’ comeback in Europe
Exclusive: report on species recovery shows how effective legal protection, habitat restoration and reintroductions can be

Phoebe Weston

27, Sep, 2022 @4:00 AM

Article image
Shades of grey: how to tell African elephant species apart
From their ears, tusks and legs to their family lifestyles, here are the key differences

Patrick Greenfield

25, Mar, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘Gamechanging’ £10m environmental DNA project to map life in world’s rivers
eBioAtlas programme aims to identify fish, birds, amphibians and land animals in freshwater systems from the Ganges to the Mekong

Patrick Greenfield

16, Jun, 2021 @11:01 PM