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The science behind Flight of the Swans

In just a few weeks’ time, Bewick’s swans will return to their winter wetlands from their summer in Arctic Russia. But excitement is tinged with trepidation.

For two decades, this bird has seen an alarming decline in numbers, and it seems they are still falling. Will the flocks that arrive this autumn be smaller than last year?

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Breeding success or failure?

Among the pools, lakes and channels of the Arctic tundra, Bewick’s build their nests. It’s here that our international team of scientists have so far focused much of their efforts, to find out if breeding success – or rather failure – has been the root cause of the swans’ decline.

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And what our researchers have found is there are significant differences from year to year. In summers when rodents were plentiful, arctic foxes, skuas and rough-legged buzzards leave the swans alone. But in years of furry dearth, predators risk parental wrath to plunder the Bewick’s nests.

In colder summers, when heavy snowfall lies on the ground for longer, breeding is lower; sometimes, adults simply abandon their nests. In these years fewer young reach WWT Welney, Slimbridge and Martin Mere and other winter refuges in Western Europe. However, warmer arctic summers bring bigger broods and more young fledge successfully.

Surviving the migration

So now the focus for research has turned to other stages in the swans’ lives. In the Arctic, where the birds breed, moult and feed-up prior to migration, the tundra is being opened up to oil and gas exploration. The inevitable infrastructure of buildings and roads enables the tundra to be more easily accessed by hunters from further afield. They may shoot the swans, unaware that they’re protected. A third of the swans checked in Britain carry shot in their bodies. Is illegal shooting a factor in their decline?

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Thankfully, climate change does not currently seem to be implicated in the swans’ decline. But other dangers may lie in wait along their migration route. Perhaps they are competing for food with other swan species at key wetlands along their flyway?

By flying the swan’s migration route from Russia to the UK, we will get a birds eye view on the challenges facing the swans along their flyway. Flight of the Swans will also be talking to communities, scientists and conservationists along the flyway, and working with them to help highlight the plight of Bewick's swans and spur people into action to help safeguard their future.

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