Back in the summer, Sacha Dench left the UK for an expedition entitled Flight of the Swans, which the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) hoped would help improve knowledge and awareness of the dropping Bewick’s swan population – from 29,000 in 1995 to 18,100 in 2010. Why was this happening? Dench intended to follow the swans on their seasonal migration down south from the Russian Arctic in order to find out, using a paramotor to fly with them wherever they go, and talking to people wherever she landed. ‘If someone drops out of the sky and tells an interesting story, then hopefully it will create stories that will stay in people’s cultures,’ she predicted.
The journey began in the frozen conditions of the Arctic tundra. After a short while to acclimatise to the conditions, Dench and her ground team had to wait for the weather to change, and for the swans to decide to begin their migration south. ‘There were some areas, over the tundra for example, where I circled down quite low over a group of swans and they just looked at me,’ says Dench. ‘They obviously don’t feel in any threat there. Then, in other areas, when we got to the border between Estonia and Russia, the birds were nervous from several kilometres away. They’re generally just more nervous of people there, which was fascinating. So they’re definitely smart enough to adapt their level of fear and anxiety to whatever’s around them.’
Once on the move, she travelled with the swans, flying when they flew, resting when they rested. At every opportunity she also dropped in on local communities to talk to people – and 51 schools – about the migrating birds and their relationship with them. ‘There was a lovely village I went to in Russia, on the border where the tundra stops and agriculture starts, the first place that had farming of any kind,’ she recalls. ‘Word had spread that we were arriving and the mayor of the village was there to see us. She was also a teacher so she took me into a school to talk to all of the kids. I asked, “Are the kids interested in wildlife?” Her answer was, “Yes, they all go hunting. During the hunting season they are hunting before and after school for their families.” I thought, this is a whole different culture! How do I frame this story for these guys?’
‘They were absolutely fascinated by how conservation works, how we count birds elsewhere, how on Earth you can possibly know how many swans there are. They’e really enthusiastic and definitely going to be swan-supporters from now on. But also the story of this woman landing in the middle of nowhere, trying to save the swans, telling them about the different swans – that’s going to last in that community. I asked if I was the first British woman to go there, and they said I was the first foreigner to ever go there! The face-to-face interaction was worthwhile, and that really has worked.’
‘The really interesting thing was getting inside the head of a bird,’ explains Dench. ‘It was fascinating to really see them as individuals. Seeing how small decisions can have a really big impact, particularly in autumn when the weather was quite unstable, we had both extreme cold and quite warm patches – sometimes highs and lows – quite close to each other. So the decision of whether to take a route round this way or that way, whether to carry on for the next hour, is going to have quite a big impact on the conditions you face the next day, whether you could actually launch or not. It gave me a huge respect for the birds, to think that they’ve got to do that without all the weather forecasting and everything else that we’ve got.’
Dench flew through 11 countries, covering 7,000km over three months, essentially living the Bewick’s swan migration in real-time. Eventually, in early December, she crossed the English Channel. On 16 December, she completed the distance over the UK to Slimbridge, the birds’ final destination in Gloucestershire, where they will nest over the winter, before eventually heading back north.
‘I’m very proud to have actually completed the journey when a lot of people said I couldn’t,’ says Dench. ‘That’s a very simplistic, cheap bit of pride, and that doesn’t last very long. But, getting on national Russian television with a story about the Bewick’s swan, making sure that all that coverage didn’t have just “Crazy lady trying to fly all the way from Russia” – every single news story covered the Bewick’s swan, every single story covered the conservation issue. That was on national, primetime television again and again and again, and in national newspapers, and people are still covering it. People have really bought into this story. That’s probably going to have the biggest impact. The signatures are great, and they show that we made connections with individuals along the way.’
The signatures are the result of a petition running throughout the course of the trip, which people could sign online to request the UK government create 100,000 hectares of new wetland habitat, to provide new habitat for the swans. With 13,566 signatures, Dench this week concluded her journey by handing the petition over to official at 10 Downing Street, in the hope that action will now be taken to investigate the declining numbers of Bewick’s swans, and help restore their population.