THE under-threat swift has found a friend in the Irish language.
The bird – gabhlán gaoithe in Irish – has vanished from much of our skies in recent decades as old buildings are pulled down or renovated, removing cavities where it nested.
But now the charity that has spearheaded the building of new Irish schools throughout the North in the past 20 years has decided to ensure that all new schools being built in the language sector will be a safe haven for swifts.
Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta – the Trust Fund for Irish-medium Education – has agreed that any new schools it builds will have swift bricks.
The charity has agreed to ask builders to install the special hollowed-out bricks in any newbuilds. It hopes to start the project with Gaelscoil Uí Dhochartaigh, which is presently being built in Strabane.
The new Scoil an Droichid on the Ormeau Road will also be swift-friendly.
It's the sort of direct action that is needed across the whole of society to save this amazing bird that comes to Ireland every year for just 100 days to breed.
Our local councils and education boards should embrace this type of positive thinking – in many countries across the world it's a legal requirement that builders include spaces for birds to live among people.
And can there be any better way to educate our children on nature than to have birds actually nesting outside their school windows and flying over the school playground? For Ireland's top swift activist Mark Smyth, it was the loss of swifts over his alma mater – Antrim Primary School – that started him on a lifetime journey to save the bird.
The young Mark fell in love with these aerial wonders – and what child wouldn't?
This incredible bird only lands to breed and it even sleeps in the air. They have got to be the most aerodynamic creature that nature has invented.
Mark said that the decision by the Irish language schools group to help swifts is “amazing”.
“Hopefully it will give other schools a push,” he said. “I have eight swift bricks at my home, they cost £35 each, which is nothing compared to the overall cost of a school. And it doesn't take the birds long to move in. Clotworthy House in Castle grounds in Antrim has 11 bricks which are all occupied and at Antrim Library all 15 are occupied.
“When I was at Antrim Primary it seemed to me that there were thousands of swifts in the skies overhead. They were nesting in the attic of the old Massereene Hospital nearby because of a ‘design flaw’ which let them get in under the eaves.”
Mark has tried again and again to get the authorities to embrace swifts boxes, particularly in schools, but so far just three have taken up his offer: Friends' School in Lisburn, Park Hall Integrated College in Antrim and Antrim Grammar.
“Next year Antrim Grammar wants to install cameras in the boxes and let the pupils watch the birds hatching. That's the best practical lesson any child could get,” he said.
And the new Irish language school pupils would surely agree. Maith iad!
• If you've seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 0781 414804.