This is the celebration of 50 years of successful research on the Bewick’s swans, one of the WWT’s iconic animals.
Sir Peter Scott’s great idea
The study started on 11 February 1964 when the conservationist Sir Peter Scott started painting the swans on the lake outside his window, close to the salt marshes near Slimbridge.
He noticed that the swans can be recognised individually as they each have a unique bill pattern of black and yellow markings. He meticulously recorded each swan that visited.
He appreciated that natural markings could be used as a powerful tool for the study of the migratory Bewick’s swans. Scott’s research has formed the basis for a very unique study which has grown into an important international population study in a collaboration that continues to this day.
As a result of the collaborative studies, the Nenetskiy National Nature Reserve in Russia, an important breeding area for the swans, was also given protected status in the 1990s.
Even though more traditional tagging of the birds and – more recently – GPS tracking are also used in the study of the Bewick’s swans, the bill pattern recognition is still of utmost importance in this study – all down to Peter Scott’s original idea.
Swanniversary celebrations at WWT Welney Reserve
This Wednesday I was invited for a celebratory event at WWT Welney Reserve. Besides the delicious muffins in the WWT Welney café (do try them!) we were also treated with informative presentations from the WWT’s Chairman Sir George Russell; The Centre Manager at WWT Welney, Leigh Marshall; the Head of UK Waterbird Conservation, Eileen Rees; and Dafila Scott, WWT Vice President (who is Sir Peter Scott’s daughter). Dafila explored her personal memories of her childhood at Slimbridge, how she helped to paint and name dozens of swans, and her subsequent life-long interest in swan migrations and family patterns.
Recent changes at the WWT Welney Reserve
Leigh Marshall gave an overview of all the major, positive changes that the WWT Reserve has seen in just the last six years, since the new eco building was erected: two new hides, almost all footpaths having been resurfaced and made more accessible, and a dragonfly pond has been installed. In addition only in the last few years new land has been acquired to the east of the reserve centre: Lady Fen and Bank Farm, together accounting for c 200 ha of new wetland.
Currently, works are taking place to convert the adjacent 100 ha of former farmland into wetland; a new hide is also planned. Although still very much developing, these new wetlands have already proven to be vital for such rare wader species as the Black-tailed gotwit of which 45 of the 50 UK breeding pairs breed at the Welney Washes [More about this great story in a separate post to come].
The future of the Bewick’s swans
Bewick’ swans numbers have gradually grown until they peaked in 1995 around 30,000 internationally. since then, there has been a rapid decline in numbers: currently there are only c18,000 Bewick’s swans left in the world.
In order to counteract this decline, international efforts have been stepped up: the last few years saw, for instance, the production of an international Bewick’s swan Action Plan which will be implemented over the next few years. This Action Plan has been drawn up with conservation colleague in numerous countries, including The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Russia, and was adopted by the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement in 2012. It is hoped that, through combined efforts, the population will reach healthy numbers again in the future: the aim is to halt the decline and maintain the population at 23,000 birds or above.
Changing weather patterns: lower numbers of Bewick’s swans at Welney
One of the changes that have been affecting the Bewick’s swans is the rapidly altering weather pattern we have been experiencing lately. With milder winters, fewer birds migrate all the way to the UK to overwinter, from their breeding grounds in Siberia.
As a result, this winter the lowest number of Bewick’s swans have been recorded at Slimbridge since 1965. At the Ouse Washes, where most of the UK Bewick’s swans congregate in the winter, this year has also seen a record-low number of c1,000 only whereas in a ‘normal’ year c5,000 turn up.
As a result of the internationally co-ordinated research we know that this winter many birds did not migrate any further than Germany: also The Netherlands, usually the last ‘stop’ before Bewick’s swans move on to the UK have seen record low numbers: whereas the Netherlands usually is host to 70% of the total Northwest European population they have only counted 4,800 Bewick’s swans this winter, down from the usual c13,000.
All of this may not be as bad as it seems: as the birds do not have to fly as much and do not experience harsh weather this winter, the birds are likely to remain stronger and thus, when back in Siberia in their breeding grounds, may actually turn out an above-average numbers of young. We will find out next year…
For further information about the Swanniversary, also see the following links:
- Bewick’s ‘swans diary’ at Slimbridge: http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/diaries/bewicks-swan-diary/
- WWT’s Swanniversary: http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/diaries/bewicks-swan-diary/2014/01/wwt-slimbridge-diaries/wwt-slimbridge-diaries-bewicks-swan-diary/50th-anniversary-of-bewicks-swan-research/
- This week’s Guardian article about the Swanniversary: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2014/feb/11/bewicks-swan-50th-swanniversary-in-pictures