This story was first published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Retired Salesman John Stimpson recently turned 80. He celebrated the occasion at Slimming World with a cake and dinner with his family. Stimpson has one accomplishment to celebrate: He just finished his goal of building 30,000 fast boxes that could house. half of the UK’s breeding population of 60,000 pairs.
These unusually shaped boxes have been made by Stimpson for 13 years. He uses three saws and three drills to make them in his garage, which is attached to his bungalow in Ely, Cambridgeshire. After increasing orders, what started out as a hobby for retirement turned into a full-time occupation. He often works 13-hour days to complete them all. He sells them for £20 (about $27), which is enough to cover his costs.
He has also produced about 700 boxes to house barn owls, 800 for blue finches, finches and blackbirds, as well as 800 boxes to house blue tits, blackbirds and thrushes. According to the British Trust for Ornithology a large percentage of swift boxes in the UK were made by Stimpson. It wasn’t until he went through his order book last July that he realized quite how many he’d made.
“I don’t get bored. It’s amazing the number of life problems that have been solved in this garage. Your mind thinks over things,” he says. He hopes that he will still be making boxes at 99, the same age as his mother, but his pace will likely slow.
It is estimated that half of the UK’s nest boxes are inhabited. Therefore, Stimpson probably has 15,000 swifts. He speaks modestly about his accomplishments. “It’s a nice thought,” he says. “I’m quite proud of it at the end of the day. After failing academic exams in the 50s, I feel I’ve made a mark.”
After working as a Weetabix representative for 20 years, and then selling horticultural labels at Burall Bros another 19, Stimpson decided to retire early. He has lived in Wilburton with his wife Jill for 51 years. He says it was thanks to his grandfather—who was a farm worker—taking him out that he learned to love nature. “I get so much pleasure from wildlife. Building these boxes is one way I can pay it back.”
Stimpson, like many others, has witnessed a dramatic decline in wildlife over his lifetime. His childhood memories of house martins, swifts, and swallows have vanished. He is angry that his granddaughters can’t enjoy the past’s abundance.
Rapids are declining in the UK due to loss of nesting places. In 22 years, 57 per cent. These migrants—which are now on the UK’s red list—Each spring, they return to the same spot each spring after flying thousands of miles from Africa. Many of the old barns and draughty buildings have been repaired and made more comfortable, but nesting areas have disappeared.
Swifts make a screech in spring to find a nesting spot and to attract mates. Some birds will flap their wings in vain trying to find their nesting spot. “To hear these birds screaming is quite distressing,” says Stimpson. “There’s no need for it. We can have our houses airtight, but we can still make homes for them,” he says.
Thirteen years ago, no one was making swift box. So Stimpson began. “I’m not a carpenter, I’m a salesman, but I thought I’ll certainly give it a go,” he says. He could only make three boxes per day when he first started, but now on a good day, he can make 30. “I still want to make as many boxes as I can. I don’t like letting people down. My word is my bond,” he says. His boxes were sent to the UK as well as to France, Spain, Spain, and Italy. His computer is filled with pictures of swifts from grateful recipients.
Government and big wildlife organizations have too much bureaucracy, says Stimpson, and don’t end up doing much to stop wildlife loss. “We seem to have too many pen-pushers and not enough workers,” he says. “We could do an awful lot more than we’re doing. I don’t care if it’s Tory, Labour, Liberals or the Monster Raving Loony party. They need to address this.”
He believes that local action group are more effective than national ones and has been working closely with a number of them including the Suffolk Bird Group which runs Save our Suffolk Swifts (SOS Swifts) and Action for Swifts. “The number of swift groups that have started up in the last five to eight years is quite staggering. And they seem to go from strength to strength,” he says.
Volunteers are eager to follow the example of barn owls. These farmland birds reached their lowest ebb in 1987, with 4,500 breeding pair. Many thanks to volunteersToday, there are approximately 12,000 breeding pairs in Britain, with 80 percent of them living in human-made boxes.
There are many small success stories across the country. Eddie Bathgate noticed Suffolk’s swift population crashing in the 1990s and 2000s, so he set up SOS Swifts in 2016. Now there are more than 1,200 of Stimpson’s boxes around the county, including 120 in Bathgate’s hometown of Woodbridge, 27 of which hosted nesting pairs last summer.
Volunteers from Sedbergh community Swifts in Cumbria set up 140 boxes. None of the boxes were made entirely by Stimpson. Seven of them were copies made locally by schoolchildren. A survey of 99 boxes was conducted last summer and found that 46 percent were occupied.
“Swifts are the one thing where an individual can make a significant difference,” says Dick Newell, from Action for Swifts, who has 66 pairs of nesting swifts in his village of Landbeach in Cambridgeshire, 20 of them nesting on his house. “They are terrific birds. I’ve been an engineer. I like problem solving, and these birds present so many problems that we can solve.”
Newell claims developers should be required by law to provide a Rapid brick in every new-build, and he has been working with housebuilding company Taylor Wimpey to Make it happen. The Exeter city council has begun incorporating them into new buildings. Others are also involved. Bricks for bees and hedgehog holes in new developments.
“John Stimpson has provided space for nature on a scale that I don’t know if anyone else has done,And he’s nearly 80,” says Bathgate. “We have to hope that someone will step into his shoes, although I don’t think he has any plans for retirement.”