North Dorset housing estate becomes top holiday destination

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Residents on a new housing development in Okeford Fitzpaine are working together to create a welcome for their African guests, reports Rachael Rowe
Housemartin Shutterstock

If you walk into the Old Dairy estate in Okeford Fitzpaine, you’ll need to watch what is above your head. Thanks to a sterling effort by local residents, this new-build estate has become a magnet for increasingly rare house martins.
At the last count, there were at least 36 nests full of healthy chicks among the 35 houses on the estate. It’s clearly a home-from-home for the birds – but how did the human residents help?

Tina and Mike Crimes started encouraging house martins in 2017

Why house martin conservation is important
House martins nest in colonies and can raise up to three broods of chicks in one season, often through to September. Raising more than one brood each year increases their chances of survival. From late August onwards, the birds will begin their winter migration, returning the following spring to breed. However, house martins were placed on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC) in December 2021 after a 72 per cent decline in population over the last 50 years. The reasons behind this are uncertain but thought to be a consequence of climate change. It is clear they need a little help.

House martins nesting in Okeford Fitzpaine All images: Rachael Rowe

Holiday homes in Dorset
Resident Tina Crimes moved into her home in 2017 and noticed a pair of house martins. She set up nest cups and soon had a pair nesting on her roof. The birds may have been in the area before, but as it was previously a chicken production factory, it was probably not an attractive place for any bird to settle. What did attract the birds’ attention was the mud and clay soil left by the builders – the house martins found plenty of material to build their homes.
When Tina discovered that house martins were a protected species on the endangered list, she stepped up efforts to attract them. “I placed a dish of mud outside the house. They love clay-based mud, so I kept it topped up. I also used a call signal downloaded from the UK and Ireland House Martin Conservation site. The charity was formed to protect housemartins and they sent me some leaflets which I posted through my neighbours’ doors.”
The leaflets helped inform the neighbours on the estate about the birds so they wouldn’t knock down nests and would understand they are a protected species.
Tina says: “Most of us love them, though one or two struggle with them, especially if the nest is above a door. But no one has removed a nest. One house has six nests!”
The birds are high up in the apex of roofs on brick houses but are not as attracted to render or thatch. Although some residents placed nesting cups on roof areas, some birds nested on top of them instead of inside. However, that’s expected; the birds breed more than once in a season and move the bigger chicks “downstairs” so they can accommodate new babies upstairs.

The Old Dairy estate in Okeford Fitzpaine is welcoming its new African visitors

Watch your head!
Naturally, with a plethora of nests and cute chicks, there’s a different hazard around the houses, with bird mess inevitably landing on paths, cars – or people. The birds also clean out muck from nests and are generally very untidy house guests. But, as Tina points out, it is easily cleaned away with a hose or brush. Residents have also taken to placing plant pots underneath the nests to catch droppings, and some houses have mats on window ledges. Vigilance is required when leaving the house – you never quite know what might land!
Tina is proud of the way the community has come together. “We have come from all over the country to live here, many from urban environments and unused to anything like this – and yet we have all accepted these wonderful birds into our homes.”
Watching the house martins swoop around their homes is mesmerising and has been uplifting for the residents. It is an excellent example of how humans and nature can live side by side in harmony and how new housing developments can be adapted to attract wildlife.

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