Saving Souter’s sand martins

An artificial sand martin nest bank with 140 holes overlooks a pond in Whitburn Point Local Nature Reserve

With backing from the Community Foundation’s Local Environmental Action Fund (LEAF), National Trust rangers and the local Coastal Conservation Group have collaborated to build an imitation sand martin nest bank in Whitburn Coastal Park nature reserve. 

What makes sand martins so special?

Sand martins are the smallest European hirundines, i.e. the same family as swallows and house martins. With dark brown upper parts and under wings contrasting with pale under parts, they can be difficult to tell apart when on the wing; look out for their distinctive chest bar.

They are agile fliers, feeding on insects mainly caught over water. Your best chance of a good view of a sand martin is when they perch to rest. They can be spotted in the UK between March and October, when they return from Africa to breed.

A sand martin lands on The Leas
A sand martin rests on the ground
A sand martin lands on The Leas

Why do they need our help?

Over the last 50 years the European population of sand martins has crashed twice as an effect of drought in the birds' African wintering grounds. 

Their nesting habits can make them very vulnerable too. Sand martins arrive in the UK between mid- March and mid-April and immediately begin looking for suitable nest sites. They dig tunnels in sandy, vertical banks such as railway cuttings, riverbanks and cliffs, where they lay two clutches of eggs during their breeding season. Nesting tunnels can be up to a metre long, with a nesting chamber at the end.

Sand martins at a nest hole
A pair of sand martins at a nest hole in a sandy bank
Sand martins at a nest hole

Ranger Dougie Holden has worked closely with local Coastal Conservation Group members for several years, surveying various bird species and improving habitats around Souter Lighthouse and The Leas. The sand martin project is particularly special to him.

" Each year, small numbers of sand martins nest in the soft earth of the cliff-top near the lighthouse. Unfortunately the tunnels are prone to collapsing, especially after long periods of summer rain. This can break eggs and kill adults and chicks trapped inside. We’ve witnessed this several times in recent years and it’s heart-breaking. 46 nest holes were lost in 2016 alone. We desperately wanted to help prevent this happening again, so that year we decided to hatch a plan to build a safe, secure artificial nesting bank in the coastal park. The project wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing help and support of partner organisations and volunteers, not to mention the generosity of several local businesses which supplied materials and machinery. "
- Dougie Holden, ranger, Souter Lighthouse and The Leas

The chosen location overlooks a pond, the ideal insect hunting ground for sand martins feeding hungry chicks. The nesting bank, complete with a green roof and a weasel baffles to prevent predators, offers 140 holes for breeding pairs. It is hoped that, year on year, local sand martin numbers will increase and the species will thrive in the long term. The building also allows access to the nests from inside, so that each individual nest can be monitored. In turn, valuable data will be provided to the British Trust for Ornithology.

You can step up for sand martins too

Want to be a sand martin hero? You can sponsor a sand martin nest. 

For a donation of £40 per nest tunnel (plus a £20 maintenance fee each further year the nest is occupied), you’ll receive a quarterly newsletter with updates and photos plus a children’s pack with information and activities.

For details contact Vicki Johnson at Souter Lighthouse via email or by phone on 0191 5290902.

Latest posts

18 Feb 18

Building work is complete

The building, including 140 nesting holes and a weasel baffle to prevent predators, is finished in anticipation of the first sand martins moving in from mid-March.

An artificial sand martin nest bank with 140 holes overlooks a pond in Whitburn Point Local Nature Reserve

06 Nov 17

The project scoops a Green Apple Award

Network Rail wins a Green Apple Gold Award for Environmental Best Practice in the category of ‘Building and Construction – Conservation and Wildlife Projects’, presented in a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament.

Four members of Network Rail pose with their Green Apple Award against the London skyline

03 Apr 17

Building work begins

And they're off! Rangers, volunteers and Coastal Conservation Group members get to work on the first stage of construction.

A team starts building work on the sand martin bank