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Sculpting a sand castle for sand martins

In Sand Bank, Sand Sculpture by JamieLeave a Comment

At the beginning of 2021, after hibernating briefly over winter, the professional sand sculptors at Sand In Your Eye heeded the call of the road and packed up their sand sculpting tools to travel down from Yorkshire to Spynes Mere in Surrey, part of the Nutfield Marshes wetland reserve managed by the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Whilst spending time on the M1 and M25 can be arduous, it is nowhere near as long a journey as that of sand martins. These tiny birds migrate to the UK every spring from sub saharan Africa and spend the summer raising their chicks before making the return journey. Sadly in recent years their numbers have declined due to environmental pressures and their natural nesting habitats along riverbanks disappearing.

Sand Martin © David Tipling
© David Tipling

Sand martins don’t just have their travelling habits in common with the sand artists at Sand In Your Eye, they are in fact miniature sand sculptors themselves! Every year, they excavate a new nest on the face of riverbanks, quarries and cliffs. The little birds are highly sociable and like to be able to see their neighbours and chatter and gossip back and forth, much like Jamie and Rich whilst they are carving sand sculptures. 

Surrey Wildlife Trust contacted us to see whether we had any ideas to keep attracting sand martins to their site at Nutfield Marshes, which is still a working sand quarry as well as a nature reserve and is owned by Sibelco, a mining company. In 2012, we made a similar sand installation for the RSPB at RSPB Langford Lowfields, which had proved very popular with the martins and was used for several years.

This time round we super sized the sand sculpture to 20 metres long, using 400 tonnes of sand from the site!

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The sand martin bank is 1.8 metres tall and 5 metres deep and curves round slightly so that the sociable sand martins can dig their burrows and stick their heads out and look for mates.

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We even added a sand carving of a sand martin to give the sand castle a Grand Designs feel and greet the feathered visitors when they arrive later in spring.

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Every year the bank will be knocked back by about a metre as the sand martins prefer to build new nests and this also reduces the risks of parasites. Then after several years the sand will all be gathered up and used again to build a new bank.

As well as the birds, this sand sculpture will be very attractive as a home for invertebrates such as solitary bees and wasps.

We must all be in the mood for some good news and looking ahead with optimism to the rest of 2021, as this story was featured on the BBC website, in the Independent, the Metro and the Guardian.

Our sand sculptors worked with the James Herd and his team at Surrey Wildlife Trust to make a series of test builds and then build the final giant sand sculpture in March 2021. Sibelco helped out immeasurably by clearing the site of scrub and undergrowth and kindly let us use their diggers and dumper trucks during the build.

The project has been funded by a local growth investment fund, Coast to Capital, as part of the Naturally Richer project, and supported by Chessington World of Adventures Resort’s Chessington Conservation Fund.

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