Sacha Dench will follow Bewick’s swans on their annual journey from the Russian Arctic in a motorised paraglider in a bid to shed light on their decline
Monday 19 September 2016 11.03 BST Last modified on Monday 19 September 2016 22.00 BST
A British conservationist took to the skies in a motorised paraglider on Monday morning for the start of a daring 4,500-mile expedition across the Russian Arctic that will attempt to shed light on the decline of the UK’s smallest, shyest species of swan.
For the next 10 weeks, Sacha Dench, 41, will act as a “human swan” and follow the route of thousands of Bewick’s swans on their annual migration. From the tundra of Siberia she will head west and south through 11 countries including Finland, Poland and Germany to the swans’ wintering grounds in Britain and other parts of western Europe.
A light tailwind gave Dench the ideal conditions to start her journey from the Pechora delta on Russia’s northern coast.
“I’m so excited to finally be off. I’ve been planning this expedition for two years. It’s going to be a real adventure. I love flying and I’m fascinated by wildlife. I’m filming the whole trip and I can’t wait to share my swan’s eye view with the world,” she said.
By meeting people who cross paths with the swans each autumn, she will attempt to find an explanation as to why so many fewer swans have survived the journey in the past 20 years. In 1995, there were around 29,000 Bewick’s in Europe; by 2010, the figure had dropped to 18,100 and the numbers have continued to decline.
There are multiple factors involved, say experts, but the main one is illegal shooting. “About a quarter of Bewick’s have shot in them, when we x-ray them at Slimbridge [a wetland centre in western England],” Dench has said. “But even at that high rate is doesn’t seem to be solely responsible for their decline.”
A loss of wetlands for the swans to land on, disturbance of habitats along the route and more predation by Arctic foxes, a proliferation of power lines that swans may strike in mid-flight, and climate change are all considered further factors.