Swans deliver a climate change warning

A A A

For decades, the arrival of the first V-shaped flights of Bewick's swans in Britain's wetlands after a 2,000-mile journey from Siberia heralded the arrival of winter.

This year, a dramatic decline in numbers of the distinctive yellow-billed swans skidding into their winter feeding grounds could be the harbinger of a more dramatic shift in weather patterns: global warming. Ornithologists at the main reserves that host the birds, the smallest of Britain's swans, said only a handful had appeared on lakes and water courses. Normally, there would be several hundred.

The latest arrival in a decade of Britain's seasonal influx of 8,000 Bewick's swans throws into sharp relief the debate on the effects of climate change as it enters a crucial week. As the Government's forthcoming Climate Bill is finalised, Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank economist, is expected to warn in a report on Monday that failure to tackle global warming will provoke a recession deeper than the Great Depression.

But far from Westminster, the potential ecological impact of the same phenomenon was being noted in the absence of the high-pitched honking call of Bewick's swans on reservoirs and wetlands from the Ouse to the Severn estuary. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) said its first three birds had arrived at its Slimbridge reserve in Glouc-estershire, only on Thursday, the latest arrival since 1995.

In Welney, Cambridgeshire, where there are normally 100 Bewick's by the end of October as the vanguard for a winter population of 1,000; a solitary male was this week the sole representative. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that two of its reserves in East Anglia which host the bulk of the British population - the Ouse Washes and Nene Washes - were also devoid of Bewick's. Experts said that the slow arrival was due to warmer than usual conditions on the continent, in particular the birds' other main wintering grounds in the Netherlands, and an absence of the north-east winds that aid their migration from the Arctic tundra of northern Russia.

The disruption to the swans' migration pattern fits into an emerging pattern of fluctuating numbers of bird species and population movements blamed on climate change. Redwings, another winter visitor to the British Isles, started arriving from Scandinavia only this week. Normally, they come in early September.

Other species which normally leave Europe for the winter, such as the blackcap, are now staying through the year. The WWT and other bird conservation groups said that it would take weeks to assess whether the late arrival of the Bewick's, named after the 18th-century English engraver and ornithologist Thomas Bewick, would affect the overall numbers wintering in Britain.

Since reaching a peak of about 9,000 in 1992, numbers of the swans have fallen by about 5 per cent. In 2004, numbers of wintering ducks, geese, swans and wading birds fell to the lowest level for a decade.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most