Home to roost: the robin was recently voted the national bird but the house martin is our true human familiar. Photo: John Short / Design Pics
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House martins, the little dolphins that love to slide on your roof

Martins are in steep decline now, but once their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain.

So the robin has been voted the UK’s “national bird” by more than 224,000 people, beating the barn owl by three to one. Springwatch insisted that it wanted votes for a species that “represented” the nation, not just personal favourites. So commentators have had fun suggesting the image of the UK reflected by the back-garden worm-digger: something chipper, plucky, punching above its size, a feathery echo of the Spitfire. Or the descendant of William Blake’s “redbreast in a cage”, which stood for all tyrannical imprisonments. I’m sceptical about whether viewers were quite so politically calculated in their choices, and suspect most simply voted for a bird loved for its bright eyes, winter song and sheer companionability.

The native robin’s legendary fork-perching is an intimacy not seen in Continental robins, which lurk in woods and, inconveniently for myth-makers, often migrate to Britain at just the season the species becomes a national emblem of Christmas, too.

The idea of a “national bird” is odd, when you think about it, suggesting that nationhood confers similar characters on human being and bird alike. North Americans are proud of the magisterial symbolism of their bald eagle and ignore the fact that the real bird lives on fish and scavenged carrion and is far from unique to the land of the free.

But there are birds that are true human familiars, and live so close to us that they transcend metaphor and become real neighbours. I bet that 30 years ago one of these, the house martin, would have been high in Springwatch’s top ten. Martins are in steep decline now, but in those days their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain. A famous colony nested in the rose windows of the French embassy in Knightsbridge, another in the public conveniences on the chic promenade at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Their Latin name is Delichon urbica. They are colonial, sociable, as playful as the miniature dolphins they resemble. To have them nesting on your house is to have engaging guests for the duration of summer. The intricate building of the nests, the diligent feeding, the games of the young (I have seen them tobogganing down tiled roofs) are an insight into a parallel civic society. One particularly hot summer, ours built a verandah for their first brood to roost in. They would, I think, be the co-op movement’s national bird.

In 1774, the godfather of nature writing, Gilbert White, presented a mould-breaking essay on martins to the Royal Society. Nothing remotely like it had been written about birds before. Virginia Woolf thought it had narrative structures worthy of a novelist. White’s observations and empathy transcend 18th-century science as surely as they do crude anthropomorphism. He respects the birds as fellow citizens, “industrious artificers”, and details how they construct their nests, observing “that this work may not, whilst it is soft and green, pull itself down by its own weight, the provident architect [builds] only in the morning and . . . gives it sufficient time to dry and harden”. Turning conventional human-centredness upside down, he suggests that human wall-builders may have been “informed at first” by the bird.

Now, modern builders and the owners of their constructions are partly to blame for the house martin being on the skids. Mud won’t stick to plastic roof seals. Householders illegally poke down nests to stop droppings soiling the Dulux. Across much of Europe, by contrast, nesting birds are regarded as a blessing on a house. I once saw some nests in Crete – still occupied – included in the repainting of a house’s exterior. Back home, I miss such human whimsy and avian communal spirit, and find our summers lonelier without them.

Richard Mabey will appear at Latitude Festival in July

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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