Bewick’s swans breed in Arctic Russia but spend the winter in western Europe. Some visit Ireland.
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust scientists have studied Bewick’s in Britain for over 50 years. Ringing has revealed their migration routes but we know relatively little about the actual journeys. Now, in a radical new we-can’t-beat-them-so-let’s- join-them approach, conservationist Sacha Dench will take to the air on a motorised parachute next autumn and fly with the swans from Siberia to Britain.
The Bewick’s is the smaller of the two migrant swan species which arrive here in autumn and depart in spring. It’s easily confused with its larger cousin the whooper; both have black-on-yellow bills. The ‘nose’ of the whooper, however, has more yellow than black, while black is the dominant colour with the Bewick’s. These colour-patterns, unique to each individual, are the avian equivalent of fingerprints. The swans’ bills are photographed by the trust; being able to recognise particular swans and follow their progress from year to year has spawned one of the world’s longest-running bird studies.
During the 1980s, Bewick’s swan numbers began to fall and the decline has continued ever since. According to Helen Boland of BirdWatch Ireland, 2,700 Bewick’s were here in the winter of 1956/7. By the mid 1980s, there was fewer than half that number. The swan census of 2005 found 224. We had just 80, five years later. Only 38 Bewick’s were counted during the Irish Wetland Bird Survey of 2010/11. The decline in Britain has been less dramatic but numbers there have halved in 20 years.
The reasons for the collapse are not fully understood. ‘Short-stopping’ may be a factor; climate change has led to milder winters and Bewick’s need not travel so far to find suitable feeding areas. Why fly on to Ireland, when ample food is available in the Netherlands or Britain? Illegal hunting is certainly a problem.
Although protected throughout their range, a quarter of all Bewick’s X-rayed by the trust had shotgun pellets in their tissues. However, where along their migration route is shooting occurring? This is one of many questions which flying with the birds may help to answer.
The motorised parachute will be driven by a small petrol engine, strapped to the pilot’s back. The parachute, shaped like a wing, is laid out on the ground and inflated with air from the slipstream of the propeller. No undercarriage is needed; the pilot simply faces into the wind and takes off on foot from open ground.
Sacha Dench, who works for the trust at Slimbridge in Gloucester, is a champion free-diver. An accomplished photographer and camerawoman, she will travel to Siberia as the swans prepare to migrate next autumn. When they set out on their great journey to Europe, she will be with them.
Initially, this will take her over vast expanses of inhospitable tundra at sub-zero temperatures. Crossing lakes and swamps, relying on the flimsy contraption with its tiny engine, will be particularly dangerous. She must go where the birds lead her, living rough for much of the time and finding somewhere to refuel and shelter at night. The 7,000km journey is expected to take 10 weeks, during which Dench will film and photograph the swans.
As the route extends into inhabited areas, new hazards may be encountered. Windfarms, tall buildings, and electricity cables must be avoided at all costs, especially when weather conditions are poor. Towards the end of her journey, there will be another great obstacle; will Dench become the first woman to traverse the English Channel on a paramotor?
She will cross 11 national borders, meeting people from communities living close to staging posts the swans use and spreading the gospel of conservation. Reports and live broadcasts will, it is hoped, bring the plight of the Bewick’s swan to the attention of a wider public.
Sacha Dench is a brave lady. We wish her well.
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