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Cambridgeshire man makes 30,000 swift boxes





A Cambridgeshire man who has dedicated much of his retirement to making handmade swift boxes has completed a challenge set for him by naturalist and TV star Chris Packham – reaching 30,000 boxes by his 80th birthday.

Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell

Wilburton resident John Stimpson builds the boxes to try and prevent further decline in numbers of these graceful birds, which have halved in the last 25 years – partly because new or refurbished buildings often lack the nooks and crannies they need for nesting.

John, a former Weetabix salesman, spoke to the Cambridge Independent on the day he turned 80 (January 20). He had completed the challenge of building his 30,000th swift box the day before. He has been making bird boxes for 16 or 17 years.

“I had a brother who moved to another house at Fotheringhay and it hadn’t got any bird boxes up,” he recalls. “There are a lot of trees there so I said he could do with some. He said he’d buy some but I said no, I’ll make them. So that’s how it started.”

Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell

John’s 30,000 swift boxes could house half of the UK’s breeding population of 60,000 pairs, and he has been making these particular boxes for 13 years, using three saws and three drills in a garage attached to his bungalow.

There can be little doubt that his efforts have helped the swift population. “I’d like to think so,” says John modestly. “I mean I have no physical proof that it’s helped them but somebody said yesterday that that’s homes for 60,000 swifts, if you work it out in pairs. So I’m quite proud of that.”

What started as a retirement hobby has become a full-time job, although John cannot always make as many boxes as he used to. “I can build up to a hundred on a good week,” he notes, “and that’s from eight in the morning till eight at night. At 80 years old there’s not so many of those days now but I can comfortably do 60 [a week].”

John sells his boxes for £20, which is enough to cover his costs, and he also exports them. “I’ve sent some to other countries – I wouldn’t put a strong figure on exporting,” he says. “I’ve got boxes in Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, and Andorra – I sent four boxes to Andorra a few years ago.”

Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell

Has John always had a passion for our feathered friends and for swifts in particular? “Yes, I was born and bred in the country and I’ve always loved the countryside – nature in general,” he says, adding that he and his wife have lived in Wilburton for more than 50 years.

John, who was born between Market Harborough and Leicester, has really noticed the decline in swifts and other birds since he was a child. “Dramatically so,” he says. “I mean when I was a child you would see literally thousands of swifts, swallows, house martins on the wires in the village where I was born – and there were nests on every house, virtually – but now, when did you see a lot of nests of either swallows or house martins? You’ll never see the swifts because they go in the holes...

“My hope is that as blue tits got used to having home-made nest boxes built in the 50s, I’m hoping that the swifts are going to think the same – we’re just going to wait and see on that. Every year I get more reports of success with the boxes, so I’m well pleased with that.”

Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell

On the decline in the swift population, John, who has two grandchildren, adds: “It’s very sad to think that my granddaughters will never see sights that I saw and their children won’t see the sights that they’re seeing – unless we do something about it.”

A great admirer of John’s efforts, BBC’s Springwatch presenter Chris Packham posted on Twitter ahead of John’s birthday: “Amazing TOP man John Stimpson completed an incredible 30,000 swift nest boxes for our red listed swifts with a day to spare. Happy birthday John – we salute you!”

A swift
A swift

“I had an email from him last June or July, because it’s through him that we set the target of 30,000. I think I’d done 27,000 and he said, ‘You can’t stop at that. I don’t like odd numbers so you’ve got to stop on an even number – 30,000 would be a good one’.

“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, 30,000 for my 80th birthday, which is January 20’. I said it before I realised what I’d said! But we’ve done it.”

How many does John hope to have completed by the time he is 90? “I don’t know, if I could do another 10,000 it would be nice,” he says, “but I have to remember that I’m getting older so I’m getting a bit slower. I don’t like it but there’s not much I can do about that, I’m afraid. But it’s great, I’ve been extremely lucky.”

Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Swift box maker John Stimpson at home in Wilburton. Picture: Keith Heppell

Swifts spend their whole life in the air – feeding, drinking, mating and sleeping on the wing. The only time they land is to breed. They are the fastest bird in level flight, reaching speeds of 70mph and can fly up to 10,000 feet high.

Every year, swifts travel between Africa and Europe. Some will fly up to 1.6 million miles in their lifetime – the equivalent of flying to the moon and back seven times.

John supplies two types of swift boxes – one for under eaves and one with an angled waterproof roof for use on open walls. An MDF nest form inside helps speed take-up time by nesting swifts by a year. You can order from John by emailing J.Stimpson1@btopenworld.com.

The RSPB says swifts need at least five-metre clearance from the ground and in front of the box to give a clear flight path.

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