A threatened species of swan is returning to the UK with record numbers of youngsters – including a reserve on the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire borders.

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The Bewick’s swan has declined steeply in numbers since the late 1990s but this year staff at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) are reporting high numbers of young birds arriving. The Bewick’s breed in Russia and return to the UK for the winter each year.

Dutch ornithologists Wim Tijsen and Jan Beekman co-ordinate synchronised counts throughout the swans’ range in northern Europe.

They report that overall there is an average of 14pc, the highest since 2001 and a vast improvement for the swans.

Welney has more than 1,000 Bewick’s on the reserve and expects more to arrive. “It has been quite a slow year as there hasn’t been a blast of cold weather yet to push the birds into the UK,” said Emma Brand, of WWT Welney.

There are about 2,000 birds across the Netherlands, Latvia and Lithuania waiting to come across but the relatively mild weather has seen them slow to come across.

Julia Newth, a Wildlife Health research officer at WWT in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, has been looking at the threats the swans face. “We still need to find out what is driving down Bewick’s swan numbers and reverse this worrying decline, but this year’s good breeding season is very welcome news.

“This is their best breeding season since 2001 and the higher number of cygnets this year will hopefully boost their numbers. At the same time, WWT is tackling the things we know affect the swans: illegal shooting, flying collisions with pylons and wires and poisoning from spent lead gunshot.”

The factors behind this year’s breeding success are not fully understood, due to the remoteness of the swans’ breeding grounds in Arctic Russia. It is likely that weather, particularly a cold snap at the start of the breeding season, has been significant and conservationists are concerned that climate change is partly behind the recent decline.

WWT has been X-raying Bewick’s swans for 40 years and found that nearly a quarter have been shot, despite being protected in every one of the countries they fly through.

WWT is working with shooting organisations to pinpoint hot spots, understand the reasons for the illegal shooting and raise awareness of the issue.

The swans are also susceptible to collisions with large man-made structures such as pylons and wind turbines. The trust tracks swans and uses the data to try to ensure structures are not on migration routes. It also works with electricity companies to identify where swans are hitting power lines and recommends installing flight diverters on the lines to alert the birds to the wires.

The WWT at Welney has been opening early to allow visitors the chance to see the sunrise spectacle of the 5,000 or more Whoopers and the Bewick’s leave the reserve to feed.

The visitor centre is open from 7am tomorrow and on New Year’s Eve and a large number of the swans roost immediately around the centre, so when they leave and head for the fields it is an impressive sight.

See www.wwt.org.uk for more information.

The A1101 remains closed at the Causeway in Welney due to the flooding, so visitors are advised to use the alternative route from the A10 which is sign-posted.

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