LIKE the Bewick swan, I head to Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire every winter to reacquaint myself with this magnificent creature. But my journey is slightly easier.
This remarkable bird has battled its way over desolate tundra, wooded wilderness and vast lakes and seas in a 4,500- mile journey from icy Russia.
The story of Slimbridge and the Bewick swan are very much interlinked, and go back to a chance encounter with Peter Scott, ( ornithologist, conservationist, painter, broadcaster) and a Gloucester farmer. Peter Scott was invited to see the wintering geese on the farmer’s land shortly after the war. At this time he was interested in setting up some sort of institution where he could research and conserve wildfowl. On this trip he spotted among the melee two “white- fronted” geese, both distant visitors from Russia.
These white- fronted geese captured his heart and were largely responsible for him setting up The Severn Wild Fowl Trust at Slimbridge in 1946.
Today the organisation has grown to become the Wildlife & Wetland Trust with Kate Humble becoming its
The charity now owns or manages nine reserves in Britain for the purpose of research, conservation, education and recreation.
The Bewick swan also played its part in the early chapters of this wildfowl saga.
In the late 1950s, Peter Scott had a house built within the Slimbridge reserve. The plain domesticated building housed a studio with a large panoramic window overlooking an artificial duck pond. Scott wanted the Bewick swans which nested on the Severn estuary to roost on Rushy Pond, so he devised a plan.
He placed a tame whistling swan on the water to attract a wild Bewick. It worked.
One arrived and a mate for the bird was acquired from the Netherlands. Eventually the pair bred and Bewick swans became an important feature of Slimbridge’s wildlife from then on.
In the 1960s, Scott was able to sit in his studio overlooking the pond, where he could see the birds close up while he drew and painted them.
A eureka moment occurred when Scott suddenly realised all Bewick swans could be recognised by their bills. Each had a distinctive “mug shot” when viewed from the front and the side. A further revelation occurred the following winter when Scott discovered the same Bewick swans returned to Rushy Pond.
A study of the Bewick swans has now been running for over 50 years. It’s not quite the oldest investigation, but in terms of the information collected from over 10,000 individual life stories, it’s the most intense study ever undertaken on a single species.
When Scott died, his daughter Dafila ( by the way, an old scientific name for a very graceful pintail duck) continued with this vital work.
The Bewick swans’ summer breeding grounds are in Russia, and it’s here they fatten themselves up on a diet of grasses, sedges and aquatic plants. They breed on lakes, ponds and shallow pools along the coast, but avoid shrub, tundra and forested areas.
The Bewick swan is named after the engraver Thomas Bewick, who specialised in illustrations of birds and animals. Adults are white all over, but young birds still have a greyish, pinkish bill.
Compared to the similar whooper swan, these swans have proportionally more black and less yellow on their bill. They’re also smaller than both mute and whooper swans, but have faster wingbeats. They generally have a relatively short neck and black feet and can be recognised by their high- pitched honking calls.
During the breeding season, these swans sleep on land, but in winter they typically sleep on water. The swans usually mate for life, and divorce among Bewick swan pairs is very rare.
Outside the breeding season the swans can be quite social, but come the breeding and nest- building time Bewicks become increasingly aggressive and territorial.
The young fledge after 40 to 45 days and remain with their parents on their hazardous migration to the wintering grounds. The adults are good parents and the immature swans remain with their parents throughout the winter and again migrate with them again back to their breeding territory in the spring.
At Slimbridge, one bird has returned for 28 years, and covered a total of 140,000 miles in this time.
Methods of studying these birds have moved on since Peter Scott’s day. In the early days at Slimbridge, Peter and his colleagues went to great lengths to discover where the Bewick swans went after they returned to their homelands.
One way was to dye the tail feathers with a bright yellow dye and hope a birdwatcher would report seeing the bird overhead. Today tags, satellites or
other technology can be used to record the movement of these birds.
What is less certain is what is happening generally to migrant bird numbers. With altering weather patterns, the particular composition of migrant birds has changed at Slimbridge since Peter Scott’s day. At one time geese would turn up in their thousands, but these days they appear in their hundreds.
Peter Scott could never have imagined this changing mix of birds you see today. Instead of thousands of geese, tens of thousand of golden plover, lapwing and other species occupy the space.
January has the highest bird numbers. It’s quite normal to see 45,000 birds, amongst them 8,000 European wigeon, 6,000 golden plover, 2,000 dunlins, 800 curlew and 12,000 lapwings, as well as spotted red shanks, little stint, ruff, jack snipe and many common snipe.
In some cases, declining numbers can be explained by a phenomenon known as “short stopping”. The term describes how a shortened autumn migration can result in some species choosing to winter closer to their breeding areas because of changing weather patterns.
In other words, if it’s warm enough in Holland some birds may stay there, rather than flying on to Britain in the winter.
Short stopping doesn’t account for all declining numbers. Since 1995 the number of Bewick swans migrating from arctic Russia to northern Europe has plummeted by nearly half, with numbers down from 29,000 to 18,000.
There are many adverse factors like loss of habitat, including wetlands.
Half of the world’s inland wetlands have been lost, with 15% of wetland birds in decline, and 30% of mammals also threatened.
The presence of wind turbines and power pylons along their flightpath, climate change and illegal hunting have also played their part in this dramatic decrease.
In 2016, Sacha Dench from the WWT successfully flew 7,000 km following the migration of the Bewick swan from Siberia, in north Russia, to Slimbridge in England.
She used a “paramotor”: a motorised steerable parachute, powered by a motor and propeller strapped to her back. The journey took 10 weeks, and covered 11 countries.
Even though the Bewick is protected, hunting appeared to add to the its demise. One finding revealed 36% of birds had shot in their tissue.
Slimbridge comprises some 2,000 acres of land. The reserve includes a mixture of pasture land, much of which gets flooded in winter, lagoons, reed beds and salt marshes beside the Severn estuary. As one commentator said, “You can get a touch of the wild
without getting your feet wet.”
It’s also well equipped for families, individuals of all ages and the disabled.
There’s something for everyone, with an effusion of wildlife, talks happening throughout the day, the largest collection of amphibians in Europe and all the species of flamingos from around the world on offer.
For me, my favourite time is to see a warden going round with a barrow of grain to feed the swans as they come into roost on Rushy Pond.
You can position yourself in the huge Peng Observatory, which can hold up to 70 people, while the reserve team member provides a commentary on the individual birds in front of him. That’s something unique to Slimbridge and there’s nowhere in the world you can get closer to a Bewick swan. Slimbridge is open 364 days of the year. The address is WWT Slimbridge, Bowditch, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, GL2 7BT. Call 01453 891900 or visit wwt. org. uk for more information.
Kate Humble, the new President of WWT.
Birds on Rushy Pond.
Peter Scott by Rushy Pond.
A Bewick swan at Slimbridge.