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Gearing up for the record breaking Channel crossing

When you've flown all the way from Northern Russia, across the artic tundra and the taiga forest, dodging thunderstorms and blizzards and suffered temperatures down to minus 15, you might think flying 30km across the Channel isn't much of a big deal. But when it's 30km of water, with no landing option other than into that water, it's a different matter.

"Crossing the Channel may seem like a small distance compared to the distance I've travelled," says Sacha. "But it is the only place where there are no landing options if the engine fails, apart from the water. The engine has been fabulous for the last 6,000km so why should I worry? But you have to, because the implications of getting it wrong are fairly dramatic. No paramotorist wants to land in the water, ever."

Sacha will make her crossing at the shortest part of the channel, from Wissant to Dover, which is around 30km across the water. However, her actual flight distance will be around 43km. She needs to wait for a light tailwind to attempt the crossing and will be backed up by a safety boat, positioned in the middle of the channel between the major shipping channels.

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Weather dependant

Weather is the key determiner now as to when the crossing will be able to take place. A drop in temperatures and a favourable easterly wind earlier this week took Sacha all way to Calais. Many of the swans, including Maisie, took advantage of the same winds, but being able to cross at night and without needing a safety boat and flight permission they could simply cross the channel.

By the time the team had finalised the details for the crossing, the weather had given way to westerly winds and this continued over the next few days. We are hoping that things will change by the weekend.

As she waits in Calais, with a teasing glimpse of England just visible over the daunting stretch of water that she will cross, Sacha says she is looking forward to getting home.

“I have been focusing on planning and surviving each day’s flight, and haven’t let myself get homesick, but when I saw the white cliffs of Dover I burst into tears – I will be glad to be home,” she said.

When asked on a recent Facebook Live broadcast for US website ECOWatch what she was most looking forward to, she said: Stinking Bishop (a well known Gloucestershire soft cheese and one of Flight of the Swans local supporters), a mug of tea and her own bed.

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Stopping in Belgium

Before arriving in France the team had a busy time in Belgium attending a community event at the Het Zwin wetland visitor centre and an evening event at Uitkerksepolder Nature Centre. Here, a groundbreaking agreement between paramotorists and conservationists in Belgium was launched. This includes conservationists going up on tandem flights to see their region from a bird's-eye view and plans for no-fly zones over sensitive wetland sites at key times.  We hope this can be a model for similar agreements at other sites, for example where kite surfing is a growing sport at critical stopover sites in the Baltic.

The team continued their school visits, where the children compared Sacha’s flying equipment with everything a swan needs to survive migration.

"I'm hoping that we've done enough talking to the next generation to have created some future swan champions," says Sacha, who is bringing back with her letters and drawings she has collected from schools all along the flyway to display at WWT Slimbridge.

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The petition

Once Sacha touches down on English soil, she will become the first woman to have crossed the channel by paramotor.

"Completing the crossing will be epic and a nice marker at the end of the trip," says Sacha, who says she is both nervous and excited at the prospect of the record-breaking flight.

Once she arrives in Dover she will make her way on to London where she will hand over the petition you have all been signing to parliament. Once this is done she really will be on the home straight.

Please sign our petition here

The Swans

The recent cold weather has encouraged the Bewick’s to continue their westwards journey.  Several thousand swans have now reached the Netherlands while 310 were recorded across WWT Welney and the Ouse Washes during a co-ordinated count last week with plenty more arriving in the days after as temperatures plummeted. It is here that the swans feed on a variety of waste crops throughout the winter, making it one of the most attractive and important wintering sites for the species in Europe.

Last week, the Flight of the Swans team along with ornithologist Heiko Rebling, had a very special time observing and filming 1,200 Bewick’s swans at Dohren in Germany.

An international age census of Bewick’s swans will take place this weekend (3/4 December). Bewick’s across northwest Europe will be counted and aged as adults or juveniles and this will enable us to assess whether or not they have had a good breeding season. Many of the people Sacha has spoken to during her journey report low numbers of cygnets in the flocks, this is our chance to check if it is true for the overall population.

Annual assessments of breeding success and survival rates provide important data which can help us to explain population trends. Our most recent research suggests that there has been no sudden drop in cygnet numbers that could explain the worrying population decline in the Bewick’s swan.

The count is co-ordinated by Dutch ornithologists Wim Tijsen and Jan Beekman and takes place at wintering sites across northwest Europe. Wardens from WWT Welney, WWT Slimbridge, WWT Martin Mere and the RSPB alongside dedicated volunteers will be taking part. Results from the UK will be collated by Julia Newth, WWT's Senior Ecosystem Health Officer, over the coming weeks.

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Together again

This week Steve Heaven, our swan research assistant, has reported some happy reunions amongst our Bewick's at WWT Slimbridge. Last year two well known swans, Kaji and Lucius Two, sadly arrived without their long-term mates but this year the couples are together once again. Kaji has arrived back with Ponting and Lucius Two is back with Aoki. We were also pleased to see long term pair Riddler and Riddles reunited on Wednesday night. When Riddler arrived at WWT Slimbridge a week ago without Riddles we were a little worried so we were pleased to see her arrive safely.

Such temporary splits are fairly rare. Bewick’s swans tend to have strong long-term partnerships - our longest pairing recorded at Slimbridge was between a pair called Limonia and Laburnum who were together for 21 years. Fortunately, the swans tend to have great site fidelity too and so pairs that are accidentally separated during migration are sometimes able to find each other again, whether it is at wintering, staging or breeding sites.