I’ve called into the Eels Foot Inn, a traditional pub in the hamlet of Eastbridge, in the heart of Suffolk’s heritage coast and bordering RSPB’s flagship reserve at Minsmere. Sadly, I won’t be sampling any tempting ales today; I'm visiting the beer garden, without a pint in hand.

This is the site of a recently erected swift tower, a structure it's hoped can help address the worrying decline in Suffolk's population of this fast-flying bird. The eight-metre tall construction, built from a felled Douglas Fir, houses 45 nest boxes which sit on top of pole, ornately carved by local artist Jason Parr.

Funding for this conservation project has come from nature groups, businesses, private individuals and the Suffolk and Essex Coast and Heaths National Landscape Partnership. The enterprise has also been supported by the pub’s owners, Southwold brewery Adnams. Pub-goers should get a superb, close-up view of these much-loved birds.

Great British Life: Bird boxes offer a safe homeBird boxes offer a safe home (Image: John Boyle)

The inspiration to build and site the tower in this location came from Waveney Bird Club president Steve Piotrowski. 'Swifts are an integral feature of a British summer,' he tells me. 'Their arrival signals summer is on the way while their agility in the air has inspired poets over the centuries. They are very sociable birds, so will not mind nesting in a beer garden full of people. In return, pubgoers will be able to enjoy the sound and spectacle as they enjoy a drink.”

Phenomenal fundraising efforts were required to enable Waveney Bird Club to design and build the tower. Significant donations were received from the people of Suffolk, demonstrating how much we love our swifts. The tower will officially open in the first week of May, around the time swifts arrive in Britain after their long-distance migration from Africa. A speaker will play swift calls to encourage the birds to nest here.

Whilst there are other swift towers in public parks and areas, this is thought to be the only one in the country sited within the grounds of a pub. The Eels Foot Inn is well used by nature lovers, including the presenters and crew of BBC’s Springwatch when they broadcast the popular series from Minsmere.

Common swifts migrate between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa, a round trip of up to 14,000 miles, an astonishing accomplishment for a bird typically weighing just 40 grams. They spend more time in flight than any other species, usually sleeping on the wing.

These airborne insect eaters are aptly named, reaching speeds of 70mph. In habits and flight they resemble house martins and barn swallows, but they're not closely related to either species. Their nearest relatives are, in fact, hummingbirds.

Great British Life: Swift siblings. Swift siblings. (Image: Suffolk Bird Group)

Their screeching call has been a familiar accompaniment to our summer evenings for centuries, but has recently become much scarcer. Swift numbers in the UK have declined in recent years; according to Breeding Bird Survey data they are estimated to have fallen by 60 per cent since 1995. This alarming reduction is thought to be a caused by a combination of the continued loss of suitable nesting sites and the changing summer weather, leading to a decline in their insect food.

Swifts pair for life and are faithful to their nest site, returning each year if they survive their perilous migration. Many don't live to reach their breeding age of four year, but those that do can live for another 15 years.

Swifts build their nests from air-borne material caught in flight, bonded with their saliva, in suitable building hollows, such as under tiles, below eaves and within gables. These critical nesting sites are frequently found on older buildings but are often missing on newer or refurbished properties. New builds may lack suitable nesting sites, but a simple and inexpensive solution is available – the 'S' brick.

This is a specially designed brick with a cavity or nest box which is ideal for swifts. It can be be incorporated in new builds and some can be retro-fitted. Indeed, Hopkins Homes have already started to include S bricks in their new builds across East Anglia, where appropriate, and it's hoped other builders will consider making this minor adaption at the planning stage for future developments.

Great British Life: Common swift. Common swift. (Image: Suffolk Bird Group)

Further ongoing work to revive the species' fortunes is being undertaken by Save Our Suffolk Swifts (SOSSwifts), a collaboration between Suffolk Bird Group and Suffolk Wildlife Trust. I met Eddie Bathgate from the organisation in the swift-friendly town of Woodbridge to learn more about the project. As we wandered through the town Eddie pointed out nesting boxes that the group has constructed and installed.

In the last breeding season they had over 270 of their boxes occupied by swifts. Other species also took advantage of them, including house sparrows, starlings, blue tits and house martins. Many of these nest boxes were constructed by volunteer John Turner, who has produced over 150 boxes in the last six months.

As Eddie explains: 'SOSSwifts believe that the species' dramatic decline is primarily due to the loss of nest sites. In this country the nest locations are not protected outside the breeding season. I know of two locations close to me which have been lost as nesting sites since Christmas due to roof works.

'Our population is down over 60 per cent in the last 25 years, whereas in the Netherlands, where nest sites are protected year-round, the decline is only 2 per cent over the same period. We can provide free surveys and advice for homeowners wishing to install nest boxes.

'Through generous donations of time and money we've also been able to gift many free swift community sets comprised of multiple nest boxes for use on prominent elevations of public buildings. To date over 20 schools plus libraries, theatres and cinemas are hosting such sets.

'SOSSwifts also gives talks about the birds and arranges walks with the latter followed by a 'swift' pint to help promote how easy it is to conserve the species. There are now over 2,000 nest boxes up around Suffolk in preparation for the birds’ return in May and we expect to see a big increase in the number occupied this year.'

I’m optimistic that Suffolk’s house builders will join our industrious swift volunteers to ensure that these much-travelled little birds will always have a home to raise their young when they return to the county each summer.

Great British Life: Colourful nest boxesColourful nest boxes (Image: SOS - Save Our Swifts)

Swift facts

Common swift (Apus apus)

Length: 16 - 17 cm

Wingspan: 38 – 40 cm

Distribution: Migratory, breeding in Europe and much of Asia and wintering in sub-Saharan Africa.

Diet: Insects caught in flight

Reproduction: The two or three eggs are incubated by both sexes for about 19 days. The young remain in the nest for 37 – 56 days and are independent after fledging.