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Swan vistas: Taking to the air to solve an Arctic mystery

Sacha Dench Sacha Dench WWT
31 Aug
Bewick’s swan numbers are dropping – and no one knows why. An epic aerial adventure into the Russian Arctic tundra aims to find out the answer

Sacha Dench will be the keynote speaker at the RGS-IBG Explore 2017's prestigious Friday Night Lecture, held at 6.30pm on 10 November 2017. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the RGS-IBG Explore website

In 1995, there were an estimated 29,000 Bewick’s swans in Europe. Fifteen years later, the number had dropped to 18,100 – and has almost halved in two decades and no one is quite sure why.

What is known is that the swan breeding season, when the birds spend summer in the high north Arctic tundra, has been successfully occurring without any significant drops in numbers, and yet increasingly fewer numbers are completing the 7,000km flight south to the UK, specifically to Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.

‘We know quite a few of the threats, but we don’t seem like we know enough to be explaining the rapid decline,’ says Sacha Dench of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). ‘The swans go past some of the most remote parts of the planet, areas that people don’t go, so we don’t know what might be going on there.’

In order to monitor the migrating swans along their two-month, 11-country journey, Dench will lead an expedition organised by the WWT named Flight of the Swans – wherein she will join the flock using a paramotor (a type of powered paraglider), flying whenever and wherever the birds do.

‘I slowly put this idea together, that with the paramotor you could go to these remote places,’ continues Dench. ‘I can take off and land on the tundra, you don’t need runways or grass strips. And no matter where I land, in the UK or overseas, people will always walk up to you, offer you help, ask you where you’ve come from, how dangerous is it, why would you do that? All the questions you want people to be asking about swans. The paramotor itself is fascinating enough to people that I’m hoping it will really draw audiences in, and the journey the birds make is so fascinating that if that story can get lots of people doing their bit for the swans over the next couple of years, then we have half a chance of stopping the decline.’

After arriving in the northern breeding grounds, Dench and her support crew will wait for the swans to commence their migration – likely to be mid-September, but dependent on the seasonal change in climate – before herself taking to the skies. ‘We might find that they’re actually being triggered by day length as well, so they might leave when it’s still warm, which would obviously be nicer and more comfortable,’ says Dench. ‘But we just don’t know. I’ll be able to experience that for myself.’ She will then follow the traditional flyway route, along Northern Europe, before becoming the first woman to cross the English Channel in a paramotor.

If someone drops out of the sky and tells an interesting story, then hopefully it will create stories that will stay in people’s cultures

She will also be stopping along the way to engage with communities, such as farmers and schools, in order to initiate conversations about the projects, and to try to locate the hazards facing the swans during their journey. ‘Learning from people along the way is a big part of it,’ she explains. ‘For example, we didn’t know that the Nenets [indigenous people of Arctic Russia] shot swans. We had an inkling, but when I was up there for a survival course last year – I had to find out whether the tundra was crossable – I showed the guys in the camp the video of our staff researching swans, catching and x-raying them. For them it was watching footage of the amount of effort and expense we were putting into it in the UK to catch and x-ray the swans that led to a huge discussion between them. They turned around to us and said “We shoot swans, but we can’t believe that it’s costing you so much to research that. We didn’t think there was a real problem with swan population, but if all these researchers along the flyway can see populations declining, we can stop, and focus on other birds that go past.” So the model already played out there. If someone drops out of the sky, tells them an interesting story, and creates a link with all the other people along the flyway, then hopefully it will create stories that will stay in people's cultures.’

FOTS expedition header

Both Dench and a number of the migrating swans will be GPS tracked for the length of the journey, allowing anyone to follow them along the route (such as by following #FlightoftheSwans), as well as helping WWT researchers to understand any variations in route which the birds might take, and therefore attempt to understand what the major threats are which are interfering with the migration.

‘Based on the expedition being announced, four scientific conferences in different countries have self-generated and are preparing to take place as I fly through. That’s bringing people together and sharing data,’ adds Dench. ‘We’ll be doing some observation and talking to people, and we are doing some coring up in the Arctic to look at recent changes, taking mud samples from the bottom of lakes. With that we can see how the landscape is changing due to climate change. Up there climate change is huge, we are interested in how that might already be physically changing the habitat that the swans use.’

Furthermore, the expedition gives an opportunity to raise public awareness for the Bewick’s swan and the WWT is encouraging people to sign a petition calling for the 11 countries along the flyway to pursue policies which will protect swans, and the wetlands upon which they depend.

Sacha Dench will be the keynote speaker at the RGS-IBG Explore 2017's prestigious Friday Night Lecture, held at 6.30pm on 10 November 2017. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the RGS-IBG Explore website

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