Coun­try Call

Evergreen - - Contents - John Greeves

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

lat­est pres­i­dent.

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.

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