Sand martins (Raphalia raphalia) are the smallest members of the martin family, which are distributed worldwide. All are migratory, and they are widespread in Asia and North America. In some Asiatic countries they are venerated as being spirits of the departed, and are well protected. Elsewhere, regrettably, they are exposed to many dangers, mainly man-made, during their long migratory travels.
They migrate yearly to Ireland from sub-Saharan Africa, arriving in late March and early April, departing again in September. They are insectivores. They excavate burrows up to 3 feet long in sandy soil in river banks, cliffs and quarries. They lay their eggs at the end of the burrow, both parents feeding the young. In good years 2-3 broods may be reared.
The burrows are made 3-4 feet below the cliff-top, river bank or quarry, at least 6 feet from the ground to prevent predation, and about one foot apart.
They are sociable birds. Colonies may contain up to 100 burrows. Sand martins return to the same nesting sites yearly.
Sand martins have always been a familiar sight on Greystones beaches in late Spring and Summer. They have returned to Greystones yearly since the last Ice-Age, and we were extremely fortunate to have perhaps the only breeding colony on the east coast.
Prior to the harbour ‘development’, it was possible to view the nesting sites, a short walk from the extensive sandy beach, just beyond the beach-hut. Here there were, formerly, five sites with a total colony of around 300 birds.
The new harbour
Unfortunately, with the construction of the marina, the nesting sites close to the harbour were netted to prevent access. This was quite unnecessary, as the birds would not have been affected by building activity. With no suitable sites to access, the birds left, and no longer visit. A much smaller colony, further along the north beach, near Bray Head, is now the only sand martin site in Greystones.
There has been a decline in martin numbers worldwide due to habitat destruction in Africa, but , undoubtedly, commercial exploitation has resulted in their departure from the southern-most colony at the north beach in Greystones. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a disaster for the present and future inhabitants of Greystones. It is yet another example of the damage caused to the environment by commercial greed, and ill-informed advice prior to the ‘development’.
The authorities dismissed the objections of 5000 petitioners in their wisdom, built no social housing, destroyed access to the north beach, and obliterated the sand martins’ habitat and that of seaside plants.
Artificial colony sites are beginning to be used in other countries. These man-made surfaces provide the sand martins with the correct conditions for burrow construction. A good example can be seen at the Lea Valley nature reserve in England.