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First Expedition to find Bewick’s breeding on Russian tundra

It’s early summer in 1991, and two British women have arrived on the northern Russian Tundra. They’ve been told by their Russian colleagues, they are the first British people to visit this part of the world since the 1880s.

They’ve travelled thousands of miles, hoping to see for the first time, their beloved Bewick’s swans breeding in the arctic. This expedition, undertaken by Sir Peter Scott’s daughter Dafila and WWT’s Bewick’s expert, Eileen Rees, has been made in collaboration with Russian colleagues and is the culmination of years of research work, studying the swans and their migratory routes as they fly from their winter home in Slimbridge to their summer breeding grounds in Russia.

But before they can get on with any research, the first challenge facing these intrepid explorers and their Russian team, is how to survive in this extreme environment.  Although most of the ice has melted, and summer has arrived, it is still freezing cold.   Where will they stay?  What can they eat?  How will they stay warm?

A challenge to survive

Undaunted they get on with the task in hand. Their accommodation for their three-week stay is a long abandoned Russian fishermen’s hut.

There are fish scales covering the floor, voles living under the floorboards, and in the corner is a rotting reindeer carcass.  The windows are broken and it’s full of mosquitos.  The bed is just a board to sleep on.  But luckily the stove is working and after a massive clean up operation, they have a warm, dry home that will suffice for the next three weeks.

For food, they have bought with them just dried goods and bread to last three weeks. But they need to supplement this with fresh food. Pretty soon, they become adept at sticking out a net and catching fish.  “We would have it raw, smoked, marinated, any which way.  There were no vegetables,” says Eileen Rees.

Braving the extreme environment

And despite the freezing temperatures and biting winds the expedition team didn’t have access to the types of extreme technical clothing we are used to today.  Layers of down clothing is as good as it gets and as it warms up, mosquito nets and repellent are vital to avoid being bitten alive.

The whole area is a maze of marshes, deep river channels and lakes. Although they have a small boat to help them get around, most of the time they wear waders – but at least these keep the mosquitos and the wind out.

But the expedition is a success and for the first time, the expedition team sees breeding Bewick’s swans on the Tundra

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Fast forward 25 years

Many of the fishermen’s huts have now been refurbished. But when the Flight of the Swans expedition team arrive in September, they will be facing the same extreme conditions during their Russian leg of the trip as Eileen and Dafila did all those years ago.

Sacha and her team may have access to the latest technical clothing, but staying warm, dry and safe will still be a huge challenge. Overnight they will be camping out on the tundra, or staying in huts similar to the ones Dafila, Eileen and their team stayed in all those years ago.  Their diet will consist mostly of fish or possibly reindeer meat.  And bear attacks could be a danger.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be keeping you updated on preparations for this epic trip and bringing you more colourful tales from our previous expeditions.

But you don’t have to travel to Russia to support the pioneering conservation work of Sacha, Eileen and their team. Be part of Flight of the Swans and do your bit to save the Bewick’s swan, by signing our petition.