Pictures: Creating homes for flying visitors from heart of Africa

Sheffield Council Biodiversity Officer Angus Hunter and Claire Burgoyne from Green Future Building looking at the new sand martin boxes at Kelham Island Museum
Sheffield Council Biodiversity Officer Angus Hunter and Claire Burgoyne from Green Future Building looking at the new sand martin boxes at Kelham Island Museum

Ornithologists from Sheffield Bird Study Group are encouraging wildlife to the River Don... by welcoming thousands of sand martins to South Yorkshire

Last year’s shy but headline-grabbing river dwellers are soon to be outshone by dozens of extrovert counterparts, arriving in Sheffield this month from central Africa, via Rotherham.

We’ve been putting more life back into what was essentially a dead river

“It’s great we’ve got otters on our river, but they’re really hard to see,” said Jim Clarke. “This is a thing everyone can engage with. Walking by the River Don on your lunch hour and seeing sand martins buzzing round your head gives you the feeling the river is in good shape.”

A smaller and browner cousin of the house martin, river dwelling sand martins wouldn’t have dreamed of nesting by the Don until pollution controls and clean ups since the 1980s led to a small colony digging into the brickwork off Effingham Street and building homes in riverside drainage holes in Neepsend and Attercliffe. They’ve been swooping over the river for insects ever since.

“We’ve been putting more life back into what was essentially a dead river,” said Sheffield Council biodiversity officer Angus Hunter. “Sand martins are an avian indicator that the river is of sufficient quality to support them.

“To go from a dead river to something so vibrant, with species like otter, grayling and sand martins is fantastic.”

Ornithologists from the Sheffield Bird Study Group (SBSG) reckon an average of 30 pairs regularly nest on the inner city Don (one or two sometimes nest in a mural by the River Sheaf in Heeley too).

But flood defence work threatened the growing colony, with pristine new river banks providing few sandy holes in bricks and concrete for the birds to excavate.

So the council’s ecology and flood defence staff got together with SBSG to save Sheffield’s sand martins: with funding from the city’s flood defence project, two bespoke riverside apartment blocks have been designed and installed at Kelham Island Museum near Ball Street bridge and at Gripple’s factory by Brightside Weir.

“Each contains 48 condos, they’re beautiful riverside properties for sand martin families,” said Angus Hunter. The avian apartment blocks were designed by Yorkshire company Green Future Building, who said the gritty backstreets of Kelham were the most urban location yet used for their sand-coloured nesting chambers.

“Sand martins would have been effectively wiped out in the city without these new homes,” said Jim Clarke of SBSG. “Kelham Island Museum and Gripple have been fantastic when we came to them with the plan. They welcomed it with open arms and said what a wonderful idea.”

A crowdfunding appeal to raise around £1,000 for a live camera broadcast from a Kelham sand martin apartment will be managed by Discovery STEM Education, based yards from the nest boxes.

“It will be an amazing opportunity for students visiting to see science and engineering in real life,” said Amanda Childs from the project. Children will also be invited to help monitor sand martin numbers once they (hopefully) move in. The wait is now on. Several sand martins have been spotted on Orgreave lakes in Rotherham taking a breather after flying in from the Sahel, and after arriving earlier in March, a few have probably been hiding in holes and drainpipes for the recent cold spell to pass, said Jim.

(Before bird migration was understood, the sand martin’s habit of nesting or sheltering in riverbank burrows probably led to the old story that members of the swallow and martin families hibernated underground in winter.)

Sand martins are used to flitting home seasonally as riverbanks collapse, so are expected to turn up around Effingham Street and then wander along the river to inspect their new properties at Kelham and Brightside. The 96 homes give scope for trebling the colony in future years.

And with plans for a ringing programme, as well as public monitoring and live cameras, the Sheffield sand martins will become a real attraction for the Outdoor City. Particularly if thriving sand martins bring along one of their main predators too, the small but speedy hobby falcon, which has already been sighted near the city centre.

“In years to come, people could be stood on Ball Street bridge in Kelham watching hobbies trying to catch sand martins,” said Jim Clarke. “It really is outstanding what we’re doing here.”

To help with camera appeal email: melissa.butt@discoverystem.org.uk