Last week I filmed Bewick's Swans at the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust's centre at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. This was for a short movie publicising a large scale multi-media project about the Arctic Convoys, groups of merchant ships escorted by the Royal Navy, which braved all sorts of hardships to deliver huge volume of supplies and military hardware to Russia during World War 2.
Bewick's Swans breed on tundra in Arctic Russia and winter in the UK and the Low Countries; their migration route passes to the South of the routes used by the Convoys, but their destinations are similar-Archangelsk, the destination of many convoys, is the southern limit of the breeding range. As far as we know Bewick's Swans have been repeating this journey for millennia. They live for a long time, though not as long as the surviving convoy veterans who are in their mid-nineties; the oldest swan at Slimbridge is about thirty. Swans are famously faithful to their partners, divorce is almost unknown (3 documented cases in 40 years) and they don't pair up again for years if their partner dies, often staying single for the rest of their lives.
The remaining veterans are extraordinary characters, whose unique life experience has been filtered into wisdom, to which I look forward to creating a permanent memorial in music and art. As young men they went through great hardship in circumstances of extraordinary crisis. Conditions were extreme; after being attacked and dispersed in summer they only travelled in winter when it was dark for most of the day. There was a constant danger of ice building up on deck and making boats unstable. Jack Patterson, (left) who we filmed recently at Thornhill near Dumfries, was a telegraphist who twice crossed the Arctic on Russian ships with only one other man on deck who spoke English.
For the swans the hardship of the journey is not exceptional-they do it every year. They can fly 2000 kilometres without refuelling, and maintain a V-formation 5 kilometres up. They are legally protected throughout their range, but they are declining fast. There were 29000 in 1995, and now there are about 16000. Birds are blown off course by bad weather and can turn up thousands of miles from their destinations. They are vulnerable to poaching-25 per cent of birds at Slimbridge carry lead shot; collision with power lines and ingesting lead shot are also serious problems.
My plan is to record as many of the surviving veterans and as many Bewick's swans as possible, each in their native habitat both the UK and Russia. These recordings will form the basis of a choral and orchestral piece. A Russian choir will sing the words of the UK veterans, and a UK choir the words of the Russians. An orchestra will play music based on the calls of the swans. Russian artist Eugenie Vronskaya will paint veterans and swans and together we are planning a multi-media work which can be performed in both Russia and the UK.
The short film is generously funded by Motherwell and Wilshaw Rotary Club in Scotland, and the whole project is the Arctic Convoys initiative of the Russian Consulate in Edinburgh. The parallel timelines fascinate me-the birds following the route generation after generation, the humans in one exceptional burst of heroism. For me each is as important and remarkable as the other, and I look forward to honouring them both.