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Byron’s colony of rare bank swallows facing new threat

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Council is be urged to ensure that a plan to redevelop the Byron Gravel Pit also maintains a summer home for its long-time residents — a colony of bank swallows.

“A colony of about 2,000 bank swallows is pretty significant,” explained Brendon Samuels of Bird Friendly London. “I believe it’s the largest known inland colony of the species in the province.”

Voracious eaters of insects, the beneficial birds fly north each summer to breed and raise their young along sandy cliffs.

On Tuesday, council will consider approving the Byron Gravel Pit Secondary Plan that lays the groundwork for redeveloping the property into high-rise residential near its perimeter and a natural public greenspace at its centre.

However, concern is growing that remediating the Byron Gravel Pit to permit future residential and recreational uses, might require backfilling along the steep cliffs where bank swallows raise their young inside burrows each summer.

“If that happens, then somewhere else on site we should set aside bank swallow habitat or we should have some sort of man-made infrastructure that bank swallows can use as habitat,” said Coun. Skylar Franke.

Samuels is worried that some policies contained in provincial regulations regarding the remediation of gravel pits (Aggregate Resources Act) conflict with regulations protecting the bank swallow habitat (Endangered Species Act).

“We need to have clarity from the provincial authorities about what is legislatively required of the city, the landowners, and the [aggregate] license holder to move forward with this development,” Samuels said.

The Byron Gravel Pit is home to a colony of 2,000 bank swallows each summer. (Daryl Newcombe/CTV News London)On Tuesday, Franke will seek council’s support to amend a motion approving the Byron Gravel Pit Secondary Plan.

The motion will read, “Civic administration ensure that future background studies supporting the development of a Park Master Plan for the Byron Gravel Pit investigate the creation and inclusion of artificial habitat or an alternative location for the Bank Swallow, if such needs are required due to planned relocation of the habitat.”

The motion also aims to make sure, “That the bank swallow habitat is not lost or forgotten in the quagmire of competing provincial legislation.”

Franke emphasized that her motion would not delay residential approvals.

Instead, it seeks to answer questions about the swallow habitat during the development of a municipal park and recreation master plan for the area.

“Everything can continue moving along. The developers can continue to do their work and work with the various ministries to get their approvals,” she assured. “We just want to make sure if those habitats are removed, that we have an alternative on site.”

Samuels believes it doesn’t have to be a choice between housing for Londoners and housing for bank swallows.

“We are not talking about impeding or delaying housing in any way by preventing species from going extinct,” he said. “We just have to be methodical, careful, and thoughtful about how we plan our land uses.”

Samuels suggested work to clarify the complex provincial regulations will benefit municipalities, developers, and bank swallow colonies across Ontario.

“In Canada they’ve declined by 98 per cent, and in Ontario about half of the population that remains, breeds inside of aggregate pits.”

Council will consider Franke’s motion at its meeting on April 23.

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