Migrating swans in firing line

Despite a global ban, hundreds of swans are still being killed by hunters en route and in the UK. Picture: TSPL
Despite a global ban, hundreds of swans are still being killed by hunters en route and in the UK. Picture: TSPL
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HUNDREDS of endangered swans are being illegally shot by hunters during their annual migration to the UK, a study has shown.

Research conducted by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has found that one in every three Bewick’s swans that make it to Britain alive has been peppered with shotgun pellets during the long flight from Siberia to their winter feeding grounds.

Among Whooper swans, which migrate from Iceland to the UK and Ireland, almost 14 per cent have pellets embedded in their bodies.

Both species are legally protected from hunting under British and international legislation and are on the amber list of birds at risk of survival. Bewick’s swans in particular have seen their numbers decline in recent years.

An estimated 7,000 Bewick’s swans winter in the UK, with around 11,000 Whooper swans arriving from Iceland. Their feeding grounds extend from eastern and southern Scotland in the north to East Anglia in the south.

Julia Newth, a wildlife health research officer with the WWT, who has published the findings in the latest newsletter of the Goose and Swan Monitoring Programme, said she was staggered by the scale of illegal hunting uncovered.

One live Bewick’s swan X-rayed by the WWT was found to have 21 shotgun pellets embedded in its body.

“Both species are completely legally protected in every country they fly through and there should be a zero percentage being shot. It is incredible we have 13.6 per cent of Whoopers and almost 33 per cent of Bewick’s being shot. It is likely hundreds are being killed – birds that die are not often retrieved. But if we are looking at 33 per cent wounded and still alive you image a great many more being shot dead,” she said.

She claimed it was likely at least some of the birds are being shot at illegally in Scotland and other parts of the UK. “The Bewick’s have a 2,500 mile migration route from Russia taking them over Estonia, Latvia and across Europe before they arrive in Britain.

“But the Whooper swans only migrate from Iceland where they breed over the summer and make their way to Britain and Ireland. It means they are being shot in Britain, Iceland or Ireland. They haven’t far to go and they are being shot close to home. Although 13 per cent carrying shotgun pellets in their bodies sounds a lot lower than the rate for the Bewick’s it is baffling when you consider their migration route.”

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said: “It is disappointing that despite international protection, these species still seem to be the target of illegal shooting. While it is impossible to say where these incidents took place, we still hear occasional reports of Whooper swans in particular, being shot in Scotland. I would hope anyone witnessing an incident would report it to the police. We have an international obligation to look after these birds.”

The WWT report states: “Among the various threats facing our migratory swans, it is those caused by man that are the most concerning, yet perhaps the least surprising. Bewick’s swans, which breed on the tundras of arctic Russia and the Icelandic Whooper swans are both legally protected from hunting throughout their migratory ranges under national and international legislation. Yet despite this protection, a recent study has shown that many of the swans wintering in Britain carry shotgun pellets in their bodies, indicating that they have been shot at illegally.

“The study used X-rays taken of live birds caught and released at wintering sites in England and Scotland from the 1970s to the 2000s - to detect pellets embedded in their body tissues. Overall, 13.6 per cent of Whooper and 31.2 per cent of Bewick’s had embedded pellets.”

The study found that the likelihood of being shot appeared to increase with age, probably reflecting greater distances travelled and time exposed to illegal hunting.

“It’s possible hunters are mistaking them in flight for species of geese that can be shot,” said Newth. “We have established an illegal shooting project involving other conservation and hunting organisations to try and get to the bottom of this.

“The main issue is we don’t know where they are being shot, why, and who is shooting them. We also want to improve awareness of both species and the threat posed by shooting with communities along the migration routes.

“There could well be people who are just completely ignorant of the legislation and mistake them for other species. There could be a whole number of reasons why people are shooting them. It is going to be a very challenging project because we are having to cover so many countries and tap into so many different communities along the way.”

Both Whooper and Bewick’s swans have been legally protected for many years. A ban on hunting the birds came into effect in Britain in 1954, in Russia in 1964 and in Ireland in 1979. They won further protection into the 1979 EU Birds Directive, which covered all migratory routes.

“The Bewick’s swan is a threatened species and a bird of conservation concern because its population is in rapid decline. There has been a 27 per cent decline between 1965 and 2005 when the last census was conducted. Counts since have indicated this decline has continued,” said Newth.

“We are not convinced illegal shooting has been a driver for this decline. One possible reason is poor breeding success. But, with a threatened species in decline we need to remove any unnecessary mortality we can.”