About a week ago the first house martins began to migrate northwards from their wintering grounds in western Africa. They have been spending a short summer break in Congo, Ivory Coast and Ghana away from the miserable European winter weather. Between now and early March they will make their way back to the Mediterranean and by early April will be back with us in the UK.

The latin name of house martin is Delichon urbicon -which translated from the Greek means “swallow of the town”. Whilst house martin are not actually swallows-they are a close relative and like their rural cousins return to build a nest made from mud and saliva in the spring.

No one knows precisely how the house martin first got its name; but many scholars have traced it back to St Martin of Tours in AD319. St Martin was an avid naturalist and used to watch the migrating birds arrive from his windows in the spring. It is reported that he used to time the arrival of the house martin almost to the day. And it is as a result of his passion for the bird’s arrival that St Martin’s day was established in March across the Mediterranean. How ironic, that as St Martins day is being celebrated by the church in countries like Malta and Italy-the hunters are also celebrating their arrival with guns and snares……

The house martin is in desperate trouble. Since 1970 we have lost nearly 50% of the population in the UK, and the declines across Europe and the Middle East are also significant. Many of the known reasons ae obvious; hunting, climate change (less insects), loss of rainforest (where they winter). But some of the causes lie much closer to home.

Our new housing estates are very tidy places. We like our lawns mowed, our brambles removed, our ponds netted, trees and hedges trimmed, and compost waste sent away for processing. The net result is that most urban areas have become increasingly sterile for wildlife. With nothing to eat, no materials to nest build and no cover to hide from predators our garden fauna is incredibly poor. Southampton, Portsmouth, Romsey, Winchester, Andover……many of our towns and cities have become no go areas for migrants like house martin.

But the worst culprit is our hatred of the fact that they make nests under the eaves of houses.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries; house martin largely nested on cliffs and quarries across the country. With the big move of people into dirty and rapidly growing cities; house martin saw an opportunity and became urban cliff nesters. In return they gorged themselves on the abundant insect life found in city centres-and thrived.

But now we struggle to tolerate any mess. And the idea that we may have to clear up after a nesting pair of house martin have reared four young, is more than many of us feel we can cope with. So we place netting under our eaves; destroy nests and close up gaps in guttering. House martin often return to the same nest sites year after year; so removing their home makes them far less likely to survive.

My appeal to all of you is to stop trying to kick them out and instead invite them in. Without our help they may well end up no longer breeding at all in Hampshire. We need to act now.

So can I suggest that you do at least one of the following:

1) Put up a couple of house martin boxes under your roof space. Creating a permanent home will reduce the mess you need to clear up after they have left!

2) Create a source of wet mud (maybe a shallow mini pond) so they have nest building material even when the weather is hot and dry...and a compost heap which are great for insect life.

3) Be a house martin ambassador and encourage neighbours to get involved by removing netting from the eaves. Lets make netting a thing of the past.

4) In you place of work-look for opportunities to encourage your employer to put up a nest box-with a camera; so the young birds can be filmed from the staff room!!

5) Take photos of your house martins and send them in to the newspaper to celebrate success.

Above all let’s enjoy these amazing birds and positively encourage a bit more mess, so that we can continue to passionately enjoy our wildlife!