Whooper Swans at Welney in Record Numbers

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust07:51 Monday 31st January 2011
Cambridgeshire Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

JEREMY SALLIS: .. a record number of Whooper swans are in the Fens. There are normally around 5,000 swans, but at the last count there were over 7,000, way above the average. Well, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Welney, and the RSPB, did the count, and our reporter here at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, Sophie Suhleria, went along to the Trust in Welney as they fed the birds. (TAPE-OB)
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Lee. You’re going to do a swan feed now.
LEE: That’s correct. We do swan feeds here at 12 o’clock, 3.30 and 6.30 at night. And what it involves is me going out with a wheelbarrow, and my other colleagues with a wheelbarrow, with a scoop, and feed the swans and all the wild ducks, right in front of the observatory, where people can get to view all of these birds.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: To do this, it must be a bit cold, tell me what you’d wear.
LEE: Well it varies. Sometimes it’s just all your winter warm gear. But sometimes, when the flooding is so deep, we actually get kitted up in dry-suits, because sometimes we can end up being up to our waists in water. And our wheelbarrow has an inner tube round it, to make it float. So the swans are actually taller than us sometimes, which is always an experience.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Do they peck your nose?
LEE: They don’t, hopefully.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: OK. We’re going to do a feed now, so ..
LEE: Here we are now with a wheelbarrow, feeding the birds, and yes, everybody gets to see all these amazing birds, that are completely wild as well, really close. So just imagine your bird-table, in your garden. That’s what Welney is in the winter time, when we feed our swans. You don’t have to be an expert in birds, or anything like that. You just get to enjoy their behaviour.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: What are you feeding them with?
LEE: It’s a mixture of basically corn, that’s been given to us, donated by the local farmers, which is very appreciated, because it’s very expensive. And these birds feed on the corn. The swans take is as an After Eight mint, because as I said earlier, all the swans feed on sugar beet tops and potatoes on the farmland. So, there we go, throw it up like that, and all the birds are all coming really close. And they dive down, and they feed, and we usually get swamped by loads of Whoopers, which is always interesting.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Can I have a go?
LEE: Of course you can.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: So I pick it up with my scoop ..
LEE: And then throw it out to the swans.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: And then I throw it in the air.
LEE: There we go.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Not hitting their heads.
LEE: That’s correct. And that’s it. We do that as I say at 12 o’clock, 3:30 and 6:30. But do check our website out, because our days do vary, when we feed these birds. (BREAK)
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Inside the viewing gallery you get a full view of the lake, and the sitting ducks and swans, perfect for birdwatchers. I spoke to some of the visitors about their experience here at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Reserve.
VISITOR A: it’s our first time here. It’s lovely.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: And what do you love about it?
VISITOR A: The expanses of water, and all the birds that are here. Yes. Incredible when they all come in in the evening. Yes.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: (TO CHILD) What can you see?
CHILD: Some baby ducks. And the baby swans.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Why do you like watching them?
CHILD: Because they can swim really fast.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Tell me what the swan looks like.
CHILD: Just like some white feathers.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: (TO VISITOR B) Apparently there’s 13,000 swans here in the evenings. Can you imagine what that looks like?
VISITOR B: No, I’d love to see it. I would really love to see it, all assembled in front of you, all in one. It’s an amazing amount.
VISITOR C: Beautiful looking birds.
SOPHIE SUHLERIA: Have you had a nice day?
VISITOR D: Yes. It’s a different experience. We’ve never seen so many swans together. You see one or two on a river, but you never see this amount. (LIVE-STUDIO)
JEREMY SALLIS: Well let’s have a chat now with Mike Burdekin, whoi is from the RSPB. A very good morning to you Mike.
MIKE BURDEKIN: Good morning.
JEREMY SALLIS: It’s not a joke, is it? Your name’s Burdekin.
MIKE BURDEKIN: It is indeed.
JEREMY SALLIS: Oh dear. Bet that doesn’t haunt you, does it, in this work?
MIKE BURDEKIN: No no. I’ve heard it many times from many different people.
JEREMY SALLIS: Have you always had a love of birds, then?
MIKE BURDEKIN: Ever since I was a little one, yes. I got introduced to it by a relative, and they were all bird watchers. And it’s just taken off from there, really. You just start off as a beginner, a very basic beginner, and your knowledge and enthusiasm increases over the years, I think.
JEREMY SALLIS: Do you know what, and I daresay because of your .. the likes of your swan feeds, and that wonderful viewing platform that you have, that there’s quite a few generations, young generations, who are inspired to take it up for years to come as well. It’s a great experience, isn’t it?
MIKE BURDEKIN: It’s fantastic, and I like to think that the youngsters of today will be the birders of tomorrow. We need people to take it up.
JEREMY SALLIS: So why are there so many more swans then, at the moment, than usual for your average at this time of the year?
MIKE BURDEKIN: At the moment it’s probably down to the cold weather we’ve had, I would think. They migrate from colder weather, into the UK. Because obviously we have a more temperate climate. And the Ouse Washes, or the Fens in particular provide a few requirements which the swans find very attractive. You have the Washes themselves, which are a huge expanse of water, which provide safe havens for them to roost and overnight. And then you’ve got the surrounding farmland, which as most people will know, is quite intensively farmed, with sugar beet and potatoes. And once that’s harvested, the by-product of that, the sugar beet tops, and the smaller potatoes which aren’t gathered up, provide a huge food resource for them.
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. So it’s where they’ve flown from, which is, what, the Russian steppes? Is that where they’ve come from?
MIKE BURDEKIN: You’ve got the Whooper swans come in from Iceland. And the smaller Bewick’s swans come in from the Russian tundra, yes, up Siberia way.
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. What, so it’s even colder there, so they’ve come here early?
MIKE BURDEKIN: Oh it will be much much colder. If you can imagine what the temperatures were like here in December, then if you knock that down a few more degrees, -20C, -30C, that’s what they would be staying at.
JEREMY SALLIS: So that’s why they’ve come here early, because although it’s been cold here, it’s been even colder than usual up there?
MIKE BURDEKIN: It would be, yes.
JEREMY SALLIS: Mike, how long do you have these swan feeds happening for?
MIKE BURDEKIN: Well to be honest, if I’m telling the truth, the RSPB doesn’t actually feed the swans. The Welney Wildfowl Trust feed the swans. They feed them three times a day, lunchtime, mid-afternoon and early evening. And that goes on every day until the swans leave, which is around March time.
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. So plenty of opportunity yet. Mike, thank you very much. That’s Mike Burdekin, who’s from the RSPB.