Flight of the Swans is the brainchild of WWT's Sacha Dench. So what first gave her the idea?
Sacha chuckles as she answers. “Yes, it’s a bit “out there”, isn’t it? I was listening one day to WWT swan expert Julia Newth talking about swans,” she says. “The main thrust was that we need to find a way to bring together everyone on the birds’ flyway, from Russia to the UK, in a common cause to protect the birds as they migrate. And to bring them together, we need to raise awareness. I had this thought in my head that the way to communicate with people could be through the Peter Scott ideal – through expeditions.
“It was then that I thought of the Flight of the Swans concept, following the birds as they migrate in autumn, taking their route, and stopping off along the way to raise awareness. To begin with, I wasn’t sure whether to mention it to anyone, as it sounded a bit bonkers in my head. Eventually I did, and the response was pretty unanimous: “It’s completely bonkers….but you know what, I like it!” I was particularly delighted when Peter’s daughter Dafila, gave her support.”
And so the journey begins..
So, Flight of the Swans was born and the months of preparation and organisation are nearly done. Around the second or third week of September, when the winds are in the right direction and the cold weather has arrived, the swans will take off. Some will be fitted with transmitters and, as soon as the signals show that they’re on the move, Sacha’s mighty journey will begin.
Planning the route....
How will it work? “We’ve had to plan the route carefully in advance,” says Sacha, “as you can’t just fly wherever you like right across Russia and Europe. This means that at times I’ll be with the birds, and at other times I won’t, but I’ll be visiting all the countries that they do. Swans can fly for hours at a time, whereas the paramotor needs to stop to refuel every three hours, and the whole point about the expedition is that it’s the stops that are just as important as the flight itself.”
Bringing communities together
The whole drive behind Flight of the Swans is to raise awareness and draw people together. “We want to create a sort of Mexican wave of support rippling along the flyway as the birds pass through,” says Sacha. “We want to show everyone how awesome these birds are, so throughout the journey, we’ll be engaging with as many people as we can. We’ll be meeting with nomads on the tundra, hunting groups and farmers. We’ll be talking to land developers, politicians and wind farm and other power companies. Basically, we’re looking to engage with anyone whose lives, working or otherwise, may affect the swans on their journey, to stimulate their interest in them. We’ll be calling in on as many schools and community events as we can, too. We’ll be able to talk about conservation, and learn more about how people live alongside the swans.”
It's a team thing
This is an epic adventure, and there’s quite a crew involved. To begin with, as she crosses Russia, she’ll be joined by other paramotor pilots, a Russian by the name of Alexander Bogdanov, who will help with translation across that vast nation, and for photography and video, British pilots Dan Burton and Stuart Savage. They will be refuelling at various hunting huts as they go.
Once through 1000km of Russian tundra – and away from the dangers of bears – Sacha will be joined by about a dozen ground crew and local experts, plus volunteer team members. “There’ll be a ground crew following me, plus volunteers stationed throughout the route to help set up those all-important encounters,” says Sacha. “Within that crew will be WWT film makers making a number of films about the journey. The whole expedition will be coordinated by a team in Slimbridge, supported by experts from the Met Office.
“The ultimate ambition is to achieve a halt in the decline of the Bewick’s swan, by finding out more about the problems they face, and, importantly, drawing attention to them across the entire flyway. The more coverage we can get, and the more encounters we can arrange – in short, the more visible we can make ourselves – the stronger the whole expedition will be,” says Sacha.
The success of this ground breaking expedition will be based upon maximising the amount of engagement that Sacha will be able to make with communities along her route. The more people she can communicate with, the greater the effect of this monumental journey.
Keep up to date with Flight of the Swans by following us on social media. We'll also be broadcasting live from the expedition, so keep checking back for more information on this.
We're running special sessions for schools throughout the autumn, so look out for autumn migration materials and events at your local WWT centres.
And you don't have to fly 7,000km to save the Bewick's. Sign our petition that demands protection for this endangered bird.