‘Hostile Environment’

At a glance:

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia) pair on steel and slate base

First edition SM(a,b).01: June 2019

Copperfoiled stained glass on galvanised steel mesh and Snowdonia slate.

28 pieces (one painted): antique jet eyes

Size on stand: 48 (h) x 37 (w) x 19 (d) cm

10 editions: 10 available

Commission: £poa (+ p&p)

In Spring 2019 Norfolk Council took the decision to cover and extensive area of sea-cliffs with netting, as part of a coastal defence project intended to protect  nearby homes and the Bacton gas terminal from coastal erosion. The netted cluffs were full of Sand Martin holes, but the birds themselves were in Africa…

Fast-forward to April. After journeys of thousands of miles, the Sand Martins return – to find their homes fenced-off. Heartbreaking images appeared on social media, of birds unable to understand why their holes – right there, now only inches  away – were unreachable. They hung on the netting, as the Council issued statements about all the other cliffs the birds could go to, about the millions of tonnes of sand needed to protect the human homes, about their consultation. And still the birds searched for a way home, and waited, and hoped. Our migrant species are easy to disregard when they are out of sight in the warm South for the winter. We brick up holes, insulate lofts and reinforce banks in their absence; forgetting how incredibly site-faithful they are, how they return to their homes: to the same field, the same wall, the same nest-tunnel. And we have so many more important things to think about – our own homes, our heating bills, our jobs; defending our world against the climatic and geographic changes driven by our own and others’ resource-hungry behaviour.

The return of Bacton’s Sand Martins to a cliff defended with netting – netting that wasn’t (with hindsight) actually needed: netting of the wrong size for this species – resonated across social media. Heart-breaking images of birds unable to reach their burros, clinging to netting, lost and confused – the response was petitions, visits, direct action; a climb-down and amendment of coastal defence plans to mitigate effects on the birds. 

But to me, those lost birds travelling thousands of miles to British haven and finding that incomprehensible barrier felt too much like the refugees still coming to us across the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, desperately seeking a home and a tenable life. I see the same desperate hope and confusion in their eyes, pictured in the news; such similar images of loss and desperation in the media. And how different the response. No petitions. No climb-down and rethink of policy, and no revised welcome. No celebration of our ability to make a difference. Only a ‘Hostile Environment’.