50th Swanniversary!

LogosThe Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) is celebrating its 50th Swanniversary!

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.

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Bust of Sir Peter Scott, founder of the WWT, at WWT Welney. Photograph: Cambridgeshire ACRE.

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.

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Unique bill patterns of Bewick’s Swans: original 1960s drawings as recorded by Sir Peter Scott. Source: https://www.wwt.org.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/bill-patterns.jpg

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.

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Unique bill patterns of Bewick’s swans. Information panel at WWT Welney. Photograph: Cambridgeshire ACRE.

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.

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Lady Fen to the east of WWT Wetland reserve centre, hugely important for swans and wader birds. Source: http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/welney/dont-miss/lady-fen-and-bank-farm/

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…

Further information

For further information about the Swanniversary, also see the following links:

 Related posts:

Winter Wonderland

Heritage Lottery FundThis time I wanted to share some pretty pictures with you and take this as an opportunity to talk about another habitat creation scheme in the area. Both pictures were taken by a colleague late last week, just before the Ouse Washes area started receiving heaps of snow – with the frost on the trees and on the ground the landscape already looked in the grips of winter.

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These pictures were taken at Mepal Outdoor Centre. Cambridgeshire ACRE has recently taken over the management of this outdoors sports centre and will start running it as a varied and viable business this spring.

Mepal Outdoor Centre is located about a mile west from the Old Bedford River and comes with substantial grounds including a 20 acre lake. Not only is this a great location for the watersports and other outdoors activities on offer, there is also some woodland and the lake attracts a lot of wildlife as well.

In addition, across the road (the A142 between Ely and Chatteris) a large wetland area will be created over the next decades, Block Fen, which will eventually link this site with the Ouse Washes. Following aggregate extraction, part of the Block Fen area will be turned into an important wetland reserve including lakes and lowland wet grassland habitats. See for instance here to understand what is happening at Block Fen.

This will happen in stages over the next half century or so. The eventual results at Block Fen will have a dual function: additional water storage to reduce flood risk, and the creation of lowland wet grassland areas to compensate for the loss of similar habitats within the Ouse Washes itself, giving especially wintering and breeding birds the necessary environment being lost in the Ouse Washes washland due to more frequent unseasonal flooding. See also this previous post for a discussion of similar schemes at the south end of the LPS area. For some pictures of the lakes and wetlands already created at Block Fen, look here.

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Mepal Outdoor Centre: important for wildlife as well

With its convenient location pretty much halfway the extreme ends of the Ouse Washes LPS area, Mepal Outdoor Centre is also likely to play an important role in the delivery phase of the Ouse Washes LPS project. Several of the scheduled projects which will take place in and around the Ouse Washes between 2014 and 2016 will involve the provision of training days for volunteers in land management, biodiversity and archaeology. It is envisaged that many of these training sessions will be held at this centre, where most facilities for this are already in place.

By the way, if you have taken any nice pictures of the Ouse Washes in the snow and are happy for me to share these on this blog, please send them to me.