As we approached the end of summer, we looked forward to the arrivals this next season would bring. But over recent decades numbers of some of these species have been declining. The species that Welney are most famous for each winter are the two swans – whoopers from Iceland and Bewick’s from Arctic Russia, but the two populations tell very different tales.
Whilst the Icelandic whooper swan population is doing well, seeing a 17% increase in the wintering population in the UK between 2004/05-2014/15. The Bewick’s swan population is not, seeing a 74% decrease over the same time period. Although some of this can be attributed to climate change, as milder winters does encourage more birds to remain on the continent rather than making a full migration to the UK, illegal hunting and unnecessary deaths – including those from lead poisoning are having an impact on the population as a whole. Staff and volunteers from WWT, alongside other environmental organisations across the flyways of the two species, undertake winter counts to assess the state of the population, as well as monitoring the breeding success for the two species. Last winter Countryfile came out to see what is involved in a swan census, and you can still watch that episode on iplayer until December.
The conservation team at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) have been working across the migratory route of the Bewick’s swans, which includes 11 countries, for many decades. Assessing threats and implementing joined-up protections for a species and the habitats they rely on across this distance, is no mean feat. Creating a network of swan champions, is how we are currently bringing scientists, hunters and young people together to protect endangered birds from illegal hunting in their breeding grounds. This community in Nar’Yan-Mar, Arctic Russia, is made of individuals that are passionate about the sustainable use of what is probably the world’s greatest wetland as they live on the front-line of environmental changes. They are everyday people, representing a range of interests, working together to improve conservation of these wetlands and reduce illegal hunting in the breeding grounds.
Elsewhere along the flyway including here in the UK, work continues in raising awareness of the threat of lead shot and the need to move to non-toxic alternatives. Lead is a traditionally used substance for shooting, but spent lead shot left lying on the ground results in poisoning of the environment. In the last decade it is estimated that 100,000 swans, geese and ducks die each year in the UK due to lead poisoning from spent gunshot, and is responsible for one in four recorded deaths of Bewick’s swans. More than 6,000 tonnes of lead ammunition – including billions of tiny shot pellets – are discharged by guns in the UK every year in areas where birds such as swans feed. Most lands on the ground, where it can be ingested by birds who mistake it for grit or seeds. It is not just the birds that can suffer: lead from ammunition can also enter the human food chain when people eat wild-shot game frequently.
In February a coalition of nine leading UK shooting and rural bodies announced a call for their members to end the use of lead (and single-use plastics) in shotgun ammunition for live quarry shooting within five years. This voluntary ban on lead gunshot is a major success following decades of campaigning by ourselves and other conservation organisations.
Currently a vote to ban the use of lead shot across the European Union has been delayed yet again, due to a last minute objection to the voting procedure by the Czech Republic Government, despite a clear majority in favour of the ban being evident. Together with other environmental organisations and hunters concerned about lead poisoning we are working to show authorities the truth about lead shot, and not the myths and untruths the shooting industries have been using to oppose the change. A successful vote would have been the first significant hurdle to prevent toxic lead shot from entering a continent’s wetlands. You might ask, well what can I do to help? We would ask that you contact environmental and agricultural ministers as well as MEPs to urge action and support for the proposals (for wetlands and all habitats) from the European Chemicals Agency under the framework of REACH. The vote is likely to be rescheduled for September, will you help by acting to fight for our collective healthy future.
We would like to see lead ammunition phased out and replaced with non-toxic alternatives that are effective, as we work towards making a more sustainable and safer future for wildlife, wetlands and people.