The mystery of the decline in the numbers of tundra swans migrating to Norfolk from Arctic Russia is about to solved by intrepid British scientists. PETER FROST reports.

THE Ouse Washes, on the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire borders, is one of my favourite landscapes, particularly in a hard, wet end of the year. And every year I make sure I get in at least one visit to see the exotic wildlife that visit in the winter.

Every year whooper and Bewick’s swans fly south from Scandinavia and Arctic Russia to spend their winter on the huge flooded acres of the Washes at Welney.

It has been a middling year for visiting swans deep in the heart of the Fens this winter. At their peak at the end of January there were no less than 2,813 Bewick’s and 7,885 whooper swans.

Around Welney controlled flooding creates a huge temporary inland sea. The acres of water floods fields, cuts off villages and hamlets and even closes roads.

Each winter huge tracts of land between the various strangely named courses of the Bedford Ouse here are purposefully flooded to save other more vulnerable parts of the river’s catchment from inundation.

In these parts one river can have many names. The Old and New Bedford rivers, the Bedford Ouse, the Tidal River and the Hundred Foot Drain are all aliases for basically different courses of the same waterway.

Other place names here read like some primitive pagan chant. Lodes and Droves aplenty, the sixty-foot, the thirty-foot, the sixteen-foot, Black Bank Engine Bank, Three Holes, Salters Lode the poetic list goes on.

We usually drive down the Ten Mile Bank near Welney, always carefully checking the permanent roadside depth gauges as we pick a safe and fairly dry route across the fens.

This watery landscape is all part of a much bigger and complicated network of rivers, drains and canals that control the rich landscape of Fenland — the most watery corner of England. These waterways drain the eastern counties of England into the wide waters of the Wash.

For nature lovers, this Fenland winter flooding brings an amazing birdlife bonus. They may look a lot like our native mute swan but as a keen birder put it: “You can tell the Russians — they have the stiff necks.”

Although in recent year’s the number of these Russians has declined there will still be thousands of whoopers and Bewick’s swans on the fens this winter.

This winter the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) will be following the swans on the 4,400-mile journey they make from Arctic Russia to over-winter in Britain.

Sacha Dench has been following their epic migration in a paramotor — a powered parachute kite. She has named her project The Flight of the Swans.


Dench and the expedition team has been flying the Bewick’s swan’s entire flyway — often at altitudes as low as 100m on a voyage that has lasted 10 weeks — providing a bird’s-eye view on the challenges facing these critically endangered birds.

She left the vast Russian tundra and its polar bears and continued to track the swans’ progress through Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

As part of the journey Dench became the first woman to successfully cross the English Channel by paramotor.

Between 1995 and 2010, numbers of swans making the migration from Arctic Russia to northern Europe plummeted by more than a third — from 29,000 to just 18,000 individuals.

By joining them on their migration she, and the expedition team, will see for themselves just why swans are unable to survive the journey.

Through Flight of the Swans, the WWT will gather first-hand evidence and information that, combined with existing research, can contribute to life-saving conservation action along the entire migratory flyway.

Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon. As the winter gets really cold in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, swans and geese head south and many of them end their annual journey in the British Isles.

We might think our winters can be cold but they are positively balmy compared to the habitats occupied by these hardy feathered northerners who make a spectacular sight as huge flying flocks darken the winter sky over the flooded Cambridgeshire countryside.

Whoopers are named for the sound they make whereas Bewick’s are named for Thomas Bewick who was an English engraver and natural history author — born in Northumberland in 1753 — who produced the first illustrated guide to British birds.

Special early morning events are organised at Welney to see the truly breathtaking dawn flights when thousands of swans take off to search for winter food.

Groups of them can be spotted later on in the day feeding on sugar beet tops, winter wheat field and the large open fields of stubble.

Local fen towns hereabouts still celebrate Plough Monday on January 6 with Molly dancing, straw bears and other strange but fascinating customs.

The reserves at Welney are the best place to see the miracle of so many swans together. Parts of the reserve are floodlit as dawn and dusk are the best times to see the huge powerful birds flying. The swans have already started to leave for home and in the next two or three weeks they will nearly all be gone.

Even when the migrant swans have gone there are hundreds of other species of rare bird visitors, some in huge numbers, that make the Ouse Washes their winter home and make a visit fascinating.


This article first appeared in the Morning Star 10 March 2017.


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