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WWT's Julia Newth discusses science, swans and Slimbridge

Posted on 03 Dec 2019

Bewick’s swans, masters of the long distance, have begun arriving at WWT Slimbridge for the winter.

WWT’s founder Sir Peter Scott began studying the birds in the sixties and his research continues to inspire new generations of conservationists to make their own discoveries.

One such scientist is Dr Julia Newth, Principal Research Officer, who has been working with WWT for 15 years.

Following in Scott’s footsteps, Julia continues to monitor the swans, who fly 2500 miles from Russia to Gloucestershire each winter, documenting old visitors and the new.

This year, she started up the Swan Champions project, a community-based initiative in the Russian Arctic that engages scientists, hunters and young people with the aim of protecting the Bewick’s swan and other endangered birds from illegal hunting. Here, Julia gives us some insight on what it’s like to belong to one of the longest running intense studies of any single species in the world.

During the winter time they are studied every day. Over the years we’ve built up a really vivid and rich picture of the lives of essentially 10,000 individuals that have been coming here since the sixties. It’s an amazing data set. It’s very unusual to have something that long and robust over such a long time frame but that was Sir Peter Scott’s plan. He saw the potential of drawing the bill and naming the bird, he could see how that could be used to keep track of them and understand them.

The wintertime is great. Most people dread winter but I really get excited. In September you’ll start to hear from your Russian colleagues in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug where their breeding grounds are, saying they’re on their way. And then you start to get reports from enthusiasts in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and then finally you’re waiting for the first bird to reach British shores.

It’s a huge build up over a number of weeks. We actually have a sweepstake at work. Everyone gets involved with it – the anticipation is really high. Off the back of that you’re also wondering which individuals are going to turn up. You never know. They have a lot of threats facing them. Swans that you have been studying for ten years will suddenly disappear off the radar and then that will be that.

When the numbers start building up, a daily register is taken every morning before they are fed. The swans roost on the Rushy Lake at Slimbridge and so it’s the one time of day when it’s good light and most of the birds are there, waiting for their feed. That’s when you cast your eye over the flock and identify each individual. You might think ‘there’s Teapot, there’s Croupier, there’s Riddler’. You start ticking off your list and any new birds you don’t recognise you then draw. You might give them a new identity if they haven’t been here in previous years. It’s really important to observe a bird’s behaviour because if they are very confident at their first feed, you know they’ve been here before because they just go straight in. Whereas those birds that have literally just arrived for the very first time will usually fly at the first feed. You have to be a bit of a detective.

My favourites are usually the old ones. Croupier is one of my favourites. He’s 27 now and he’s been coming back for years and years and years and I think you do end up having an affinity with those birds you are used to seeing. When you first see a bird skate in you can’t quite figure out who it is so it’s lovely when you recognise them as an old bird. I know their personalities more, I know what they’re up to and where they like to be.

I really like working with colleagues from across the flyway. The Bewick’s swans are a migratory species flying to and from Russia passing through 11 countries to reach us - which is mind-blowing. Its conservation and future relies on working with people from each of these countries. We can’t just work in a silo doing our own thing. I love working with partners and developing action plans, just hearing about how swans are doing in other countries. Each country is doing something but it’s good to link in to an international community.

Winter wouldn’t be the same without the swans. When it gets to the end of January, February and it’s pretty grim, you’re ready for the winter to end but it’s a double edged sword because I’m always sad to see the birds fly off.

We catch birds from boats in Russia to ring them. The Arctic tundra is absolutely pristine and wonderful. Obviously it has its problems up there with oil and gas development and poaching waterbirds but actually you get a sense of space when you’re there and it’s just spectacular. It’s a haven for birds in the summer. We’ve had some really fun random surreal moments like playing volleyball in the tundra while waiting for the tide to come in so we can catch birds. When we get going on the field work, it’s really fun. Everyone mucks in.

The journey involves a flight to Moscow, then an internal flight to Nar’Yan-Mar. Then we take a boat that sails up the Pechora River for six hours, then you’re in the remote huts like the replica that recently opened at Slimbridge. When I walked into it, it took me right back! Your phones don’t work, you have a satellite phone in case of an emergency. You’re quite cut off in a research hut on an island. There’s no one else around. There’s tinned food. We have rye bread that lasts for weeks. The locals catch fresh fish.

The last time I was there it was minus 44 degrees Celsius. You get outside and your eyes and eyelashes freeze up. But it’s very refreshing. They shut the schools there when it gets to minus 40 – that’s the threshold.

Bewick’s are so timid. They come from the arctic. They will keep a hundred metres from you – more than that actually.

We’ve learnt some unfortunate things about swans through our surveillance work. A third that arrive at Slimbridge have been shot at so they carry shot in their bodies and many more probably die. They also collide with power lines and that’s a really big problem.

Bewick’s swans in the wild can live to 29. They are long-lived birds. In captivity they can live until their thirties. They are also very loyal to each other which is very sweet. We had a pair visit here that had been together for 21 years. Those things are lovely to unpick. I love extracting these nice little snippets of information that focus on individuals as well as the whole flock.

Swans will re-pair if they lose a partner but if they can, they will stay together. And when I say they stay together they really do stay together. We have pairs that have been coming here for years and if you watch them, they are within a metre of each other all the time. They sleep together, they feed together and they fly together. In Russia they are building nests together and co-parenting. You don’t see them separated during the day. I have seen swans arrive on their own that have been in pairs before whereby they have clearly lost their partner recently or their partner has for whatever reason died, you can tell they are distressed. They are calling, they do a lot of flying around, looking for their partner. Who knows what the deep impact this has on the birds? It’s quite awful to see that response. They are a unit. We call them social units.

They are very faithful to their wintering sites. We do get a lot of the same birds coming year after year. They love it here at Slimbridge because we manage the reserve for them and the other wildfowl so it’s perfect. We see youngsters coming back from previous generations. We have the gambling dynasty which is probably the most famous that has many off shoots. Most winters you have at least three or four individuals from the gambling dynasty. They might be cousins or mother and son or whatever but there’s always a link. That shows you how much they like coming back to the same site. Most of them were taught that migration as cygnets and they still repeatedly come back here. It’s very cool.

They learn the migration by memory after being shown the way by a relative, a parent, a friend or just latching onto a group flying. What you’ll quite often see is a group of oldies - familiar faces with some newbies. It’s quite nice to see some new blood coming in. In terms of observations they tend to follow physical land features, coast lines and river systems. They are certainly looking and memorising.

Everything we know about them is quite remarkable. Their social interactions are fascinating. They have a pecking order. The larger the family unit the more weight they throw about on the pond. All of it surprises me in a way. Even though they are one of the most studied birds in the world we’re always learning something new.

There are a few things that worry me about the Bewick’s. Hunting is an issue. We are working with our partners in Russia and other countries to try and reduce it. Climate change is probably one of the biggest threats facing most species on the planet. For the swans breeding on the tundra, there is a very narrow band that they can breed on. This habitat is perfect for them. With the warmer summers up there – the Arctic is heating twice as fast as the rest of the planet – other swan species are encroaching and moving further north. Species like the mute which would normally be further south in the river deltas rather than in the tundra are increasingly moving north. Swans like whoopers have very similar ecological needs to the Bewick’s which could cause problems in terms of competition with food – that sort of thing. There’s also the development of wetlands across Europe. That’s a huge issue for migratory water birds.

We have recently seen reports from the IPBES (The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service) which has shown catastrophic biodiversity loss driven by humans. It’s a big issue. Biodiversity is like the fabric of our existence, it’s our life support system. Our work is important for really making efforts to restore, maintain and prevent the loss of biodiversity. I think all those efforts at this point are even more important given the current situation.

We are always grateful for the support we receive from people and that comes in all different forms. It comes in good working relationships with our Russian colleagues, it comes in the forms of volunteers who come in and help support us with our work and it also comes in the form of funders who support our work financially which is critical because we wouldn’t be able to do any of the work we do without them. Funders like the players of People’s Postcode Lottery are really giving us an important lifeline that enables us to continue our work. Conservation is extremely collaborative and it’s a huge team effort.

The land within indigenous hands is usually more biodiverse. Different people manage land differently and indigenous communities traditionally co-exist with nature rather than dominate it. I think we have a lot to learn from these communities. That’s why, with the Swan Champion project we’ve started, we’re involving key people who live up there who have a wealth of knowledge and that includes the indigenous Nenets reindeer breeders. Traditional knowledge, as it’s now called, is much more recognisable now as invaluable information that should be listened to.

The Nenets Reindeer Breeders – it’s a very mixed community. Many live in the towns now which is often the case as that’s where the employment is, but reindeer breeding and herding is still an important part of their lives. It’s certainly a different way of living but more and more people are keyed into the towns and cities than they were before, it’s not necessarily people out in the wilderness on their own -most people have mobile phones now. They have a lot of knowledge. It’s their landscape.