Tuesday 24 April 2018

Former free-diving champion to fly with swans' migration for 4,500 miles

Sacha Dench will fly along with the 4,500-mile migration of Bewick's swans (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust/PA)
Sacha Dench will fly along with the 4,500-mile migration of Bewick's swans (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust/PA)

A sportswoman and conservationist is set to undertake the 4,500-mile (7,242km) migration of Bewick's swans by flying with the birds using just a parachute wing and a small propeller engine.

The dramatic journey by paramotor will take former free-diving champion Sacha Dench over hundreds of miles of desolate Arctic tundra, to unvisited wetlands and through landscapes where she will have to navigate wind farms and tall buildings.

Ms Dench, who works for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) which has studied Bewick's swans for more than 50 years, will leave the Russian Arctic with the birds next autumn, flying with them along their migration route through 11 countries.

She hopes to arrive after 10 weeks at WWT's Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, having been the first woman to paramotor over the Channel, flown along the Thames through central London and having filmed and made live broadcasts along the way.

The first ever attempt to follow the swans on their migration aims to uncover new science about the birds, whose numbers have halved in the past two decades, highlight their situation and to engage the different communities and people along the route who are important for their survival.

Ms Dench said: "Flying a really long journey with Bewick's swans would introduce people to the story. If we can tell the story with modern technology, we can really show people what the swans go through and the huge range of people they're relying on."

Flying by paramotor, which involves being strapped to a small propeller engine and a parachute wing, is the best way to follow the migration as Ms Dench will be able to land and take off on foot on the remote tundra where no wheeled vehicle could.

Conditions will be tough on the trip: "We will be flying in the cold, with winds in the wrong direction, and having to find safe places to land on the tundra.

"It's a huge 600km (370-mile) stretch with no roads, and huge amounts of water, pools and rivers all over the place."

Unable to carry much food, she has attended a survival course teaching her how to fish and find berries and mushrooms.

The issue of a lightweight tent still has to be solved, though she may be able to seek shelter at times with nomadic reindeer herders or at remote meteorological stations.

The journey will take her to wetlands never visited by people before, and then into civilisation, where her flight will have to cope with the turbulence caused by wind turbines and buildings.

She said she hoped to use the interest in her arrival by paramotor to start conversations with communities along the route about the swans, and invite people from reindeer herders to town planners to get involved with helping them survive.

And she said: "As we develop the expedition we're exploring new research opportunities, from doing an aerial survey of the swans' breeding grounds to documenting the turbulence from a wind turbine."

Ms Dench is looking for volunteers for the expedition, one to help with planning and two to go with her on the expedition - one as a mechanic and another with film-making and editing skills.

Press Association

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