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Wildlife: The beautiful Bewick’s and Whooper swans

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 March 2017

Whooper swan and cygnets

Whooper swan and cygnets

Paul Hobson

Paul Hobson reflects on the recent headline-grabbing journey of Sacha Dench and the beautiful Bewick’s Swan

Bewick's swan in flightBewick's swan in flight

Awareness raising in modern conservation is a vital part of a wide range of strategies that are necessary to help protect wildlife in Britain. However, with the complex and instant media portfolio such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube accessed by the phone in your pocket, it is now getting harder to fire the imagination of the general public. When I studied for my degree in Natural Environmental Science in the 1970s I took part in a few Green Peace stunts and applauded the news-making headlines that saw whaling and global warming brought firmly into the public’s consciousness. Today, conservation groups tend not to opt for the confrontational approach, and look for projects that inspire us so that we use our credit cards or sign a petition to support whichever habitat or species is being highlighted.

There have been many wildlife projects over the last few years. Some have been memorable, others not. However, one that really jumps out is the Wildlife and Wetlands (WWT) ‘Flight of the Swans,’ by Sacha Dench. Bewick’s swans breed in the vast empty tundra of Russia and migrate across Europe to winter in Britain, with significant herds heading for Slimbridge in Gloucestershire and the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Sacha has travelled with the swans, flying 7,000km by paramotor (a motorised hang glider) from Russia to England, crossing the Channel on the 8th December 2016. It was a true flight of endurance and hardship, both for Sacha and the thousands of Bewick’s swans she travelled with. Daily updates on the web and Facebook allowed thousands to follow their epic journey.

So why did the WWT and Sacha invest so much time, money, blood, sweat and tears to bring the story of the swan’s migration to Britain’s populace? Well, over the past 20 years the number of Bewick’s swans arriving in Britain has dropped alarmingly from 29,000 to 18,000. The reasons why are not clear. A lot of research has been focused on their breeding grounds in Siberia but other reasons may have something to do with the annual migration to and from Britain. Sacha’s incredible flight was to gather information along the route and raise awareness of the pioneering research work funded by the WWT.

Bewick’s swans can be seen in Derbyshire, though unfortunately none actually overwinter here. Over the years a few have put in an appearance on Coombes, Staunton Harold and Ogston reservoirs. However, the greatest likelihood of seeing these graceful birds is catching a herd flying overhead, possibly on their way to Martin Mere in Lancashire in late autumn or spring.

Bewick's swan in flightBewick's swan in flight

The naming of plants and animals after a person is now frowned upon by some scientists but personally I love the idea. It connects us with our past and allows us to learn about some of the pioneering personalities who shaped our study of natural history. William Yarrel (author of the popular History of British Birds) named the swan after Thomas Bewick in 1830. Bewick was an engraver who produced a delightful two volume work on British birds illustrated with lovely woodcut images.

Bewick’s swan is also known as the tundra swan because it breeds across a vast area of tundra mainly in Russian Siberia. One of the first Englishmen to discover its breeding grounds was the Sheffield steelworks owner, Henry Seebohm, who visited the valley of the River Pechora in 1875 after a gruelling journey by sledge across the frozen lands of Siberia.

Whooper swans look similar to Bewick’s, and are often confused with them. They both have black and yellow bills and both journey here to spend the winter grazing the fields and wetlands in our mild climate. Whoopers are larger and the yellow extends further down the bill. Whooper swans also breed in different areas, with a significant population in Iceland. Herds of whoopers can also be spotted in Derbyshire, often in March as they return to Iceland from their main winter grounds in the Ouse and Nene washes.

Whilst capturing the public’s attention is definitely more difficult today, with so many competing good causes and stunts, Sacha’s ‘Flight of the Swans’ is certainly one of the most exciting and innovative projects of the last few years. Why not visit the website at www.flightoftheswans.org to read more about her story and the migration of Bewick’s swans. And hopefully you may one day witness a herd of swans winging its way across the Derbyshire skies as they start, or complete, their epic journey.

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