7 March 1997

IN THE BOX & ON THE BOX…

The secrets of your own garden bird box can be revealed on a

television near you, as

Ann Rogers discovered

ONCE a Country Spotter always a country spotter. At least thats so in the case of brothers Jeremy and Robin Staniforth who were keen members of the club that farmers weekly once ran to encourage youngsters to take an interest in farming and the countryside.

Decades have passed since Jeremy and Robin received their club prizes, tokens exchanged for books that they still possess. Jeremy bought a range of Observer books which his children still use, while Robin recalls a special prize, a trip to the Wildfowl Trusts reserve at Slimbridge where he and fellow spotters met Peter Scott, the trusts founder.

Their interest in birds has continued and has recently led to an enterprise which enables people to take a far closer look at the species than any Country Spotter ever did. They produce and sell bird boxes which accommodate specially designed cameras to record activity within the nest.

"It gives you your own wildlife channel live on your own TV," explains Robin.

The idea arose from his familys interest in a pair of blue tits who were bringing up their brood in a nest box opposite their kitchen window.

With the help of a TV engineer friend they devised a camera fitted with infra-red lamps so darkness is no impediment to viewing. They then built a bird box to accommodate the camera as well as birds, and took even more pleasure in watching blue tits the following season.

Now the camera, for which a patent is pending, and a range of bird boxes are produced commercially. The full kit comprising bird box, camera, 20m screened cable and mains adaptor, costs £299.

Customers include schools, universities and wildlife trusts. The cameras have been used to watch Manx shearwaters on Skomer Island – birds which nest underground like puffins – and Red kites elsewhere, while a Sussex visitor centre uses one to enable people to observe barn owls.

The camera, which uses regular video tape, can also be put to good use without a bird box. Fitted into a universal mount (an optional extra at £25), it can be used for security purposes and for the observation of housed stock. When Farmlife called at Robins home at Cowden, East Sussex, one had been put in a loose box so that the family could keep a constant watch on a new acquisition, a pony they had taken in which had been suffering from neglect. Every movement that the animal made could be watched on TV from the comfort of the house.

Stud farms could find it useful, points out Jeremy. The camera offers a broader view to visitors at open farms and can also be handy for keeping an eye on children.

The Staniforths are gradually expanding their range of bird boxes. Besides the conventional nest box with a pitched roof which readily attracts members of the tit family, they have designed a triangular one to attract tree creepers and other small birds that like to nest in crevices, and a woodpecker box. This is a very deep box putting you in mind of the case of a pendulum clock.

"It is filled with polystyrene granules because the birds like to dig out their nests," says Jeremy. "You can tell when a nest box is occupied by the polystyrene thrown out on the ground."

"Ducks like to be able to see out," says Robin, indicating rows of horizontal slits in the sides of their latest design which is a bit like an old fashioned chicken coop and, like all the others, made in marine ply from a renewable source. "You can flip up the lid and slide the camera in," he says, revealing a compartment at the back with a view into the nest area.

Nest boxes can be set out in winter and spring and the camera inserted later when nesting activity is suspected. Fitting it is a simple operation which causes little disturbance.

The Staniforths have been fascinated by their observations. They have watched the hen blue tit lay her daily egg and eventually sit.

"They dont just sit there very quiet; they are not just sitting slumped. They move about," says Jeremy, comparing it to the turning of eggs in an incubator.

"They all hatch in a matter of a few hours and leave in a matter of a few hours," says Robin.

"Last year there was one little one left and you wanted to go and help it," says Denise, Robins wife, who acts as company secretary to Boxwatch.

Boxwatch is only a sideline for the brothers. Robin is a journalist with ITV and Jeremy, whose home is in Somerset, is an agricultural consultant who works overseas. He has followed their father who worked for MAFF in the National Agricultural Advisory Service when they were boys, took them on farms with him and got them into country spotting in the first place.

Inquiries: phone/fax (01342-850259).

Denise, Jeremy and Robin Staniforth and the range of bird boxes which will accommodate specially designed cameras to record activity

in the nest.

Robin still has memorabilia of a childhood visit to Slimbridge when he was a Country Spotter.