Every spring, the snow melts and the tundra of the Russian Arctic comes alive with the arrival of millions of waterbirds who come to breed, moult and feed. This vast wetland is critical to the life cycle of birds from five of the eight great migratory flyways. Bewick’s swans from the Northwest European flyway migrate more than 2,500 miles from their winter homes in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany to find the safest places to nest.
Bewick’s swans are endangered in Europe 5 and protected from hunting by law in every country they fly through. Despite this, a third of live birds caught and x-rayed by researchers are found to be carrying shotgun pellets 1. In addition to these ‘flying wounded’, unknown numbers are shot dead.
The entire population of Bewick’s swans from Northwest Europe gather to breed in just two regions of Russia: the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) and Arkhangelsk Oblast (AO). Here, more than a quarter of hunters surveyed admitted to shooting Bewick’s swans, with 15% saying that they shot them accidentally 2.
Our recent research concluded that Bewick’s swans are mistaken for mute or whooper swans, which have weaker legal protection in Russia. This is likely to increase the risk that they are mistakenly shot 2.
Furthermore, 18% (almost one in five) of hunters were either unsure or believed that it was legal to hunt Bewick’s swans. Our surveys and conversations also found that the behaviour and intentions of hunters is strongly influenced by social pressure and cultural norms. A lack of law enforcement, food, sport, and perceptions that numbers of swans overall are increasing, and that Bewick’s swans are aggressive and drive away other huntable waterbird species, are all motivations for illegal hunting. Our conclusion is that the drivers for hunting are complex, often interlinked and require imaginative human solutions.
Arctic Russia is not just home to the swans, but also to a diverse community of people. Concerns for the fate of the Bewick’s swans among local residents has prompted them to start a grassroots initiative to unite scientists, hunters and the public in championing swans and their wetland homes while reducing the hunting of the swans. This network of Swan Champions includes prominent figures representing indigenous groups, conservation organisations, academic and education institutions, tourism agencies and members of the regional government.
We are supporting the Swan Champions’ plan for community action but it is entirely led by the champions themselves.
The Swan Champions aim to increase knowledge of Bewick’s swans, their wetland habitats and protected status among hunters, hunting tourists, local communities and young people 3. Activities will focus on improving the ability of hunters to recognise protected waterbirds and encouraging them to follow the laws that protect them. In this remote region, diverse methods for communication will be needed to reach as many people as possible. Among the activities that are planned are:
Over time, we plan to share and expand the Swan Champions’ successes in the Russian Arctic to other regions along the swans’ flyway where they are vulnerable.
"Overexploitation from illegal hunting is one of the main drivers of bird extinctions globally and is the second most significant threat (after habitat loss) to migratory birds. The healthy future of the Bewick’s swan and other migratory waterbirds depends on positive, collective action across all sections of society, and for success, people should be seen not only as the problem but also the solution."
WWT is piecing together the jigsaw that could explain the Bewick’s swan’s dramatic decline, and bringing you the latest news and stories from the team working along the flyway.