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30 Oct 2017

Unlocking the Bewick’s secrets

Posted in Blog posts

A young girl leaps out of bed. It’s a cold winter’s morning and the sun is just starting to rise.  But despite the cold, she can’t wait to get downstairs to see if any new visitors have arrived overnight.

The young girl is Dafila Scott, daughter of Sir Peter Scott.  The visitors – the Bewick’s swans which have started arriving at Slimbridge after their gruelling migration from their summer breeding grounds in the Russian arctic.

It was that winter, in 1964, that Sir Peter Scott made a dramatic discovery that would change the course of conservation forever. He realised that each Bewick’s swan could be individually recognised by the yellow and black markings on their bills.

And that morning, as Dafila looked out onto the Rushy Pen and started sketching the individual swan’s bills with her father, little did she know that this painstaking work would eventually lead to the most intensive behavioural study of a group of birds in the world.

Since the 1960’s WWT has been monitoring the Bewick’s Swans as they arrive in the UK each winter. Over the last 50 years the lives of nearly 10,000 swans have been recorded.  Each swan has its own record and every adult and yearling that arrives is promptly named if not recognised from previous winters.  In addition, a number of swans are also caught for a health check.  They are ringed, measured and x-rayed.  Catching these birds also gives us a chance to fit GPS trackers to individual birds, like Hope, so that we can follow their exact migration routes.

Now, with Bewick’s swans numbers experiencing a dramatic decline over the last 30 years, this information, built up over many years, is helping shed light on what might be threatening the survival of swans like Hope.