January 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Scott family’s ground-breaking research into swan behaviour, which has influenced scientists the world over. In January 1964, an 11-year-old Dafila Scott and her family watched an unusual-looking swan land on the lake next to their house at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. The next day, another, but with a differently marked bill, arrived, and, by March, there were 24, again all with slightly different bill markings. The following winter, the family recognised some of these Bewick’s swans returning to their lake, now the nucleus of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) founded by Dafila’s father, the naturalist and artist Sir Peter Scott.

Then, little was known about the breeding habits and migratory patterns of wild swans. Sir Peter, who always found a way to make research fun and interesting, realised that tracking individual birds (and giving them names) would yield more valuable results than gazing up at flocks in the sky. He painted them, his wife photographed them and Dafila spent her Christmas holidays helping to draw the different beak patterns, which are as unique as human fingerprints. Now a zoologist and artist in her own right (www.dafilascott.co.uk), she became the first person to complete a PhD on Bewick’s swans at Cambridge.

‘It’s usually a lovely, sunny, frosty day when the first influx of birds circles over Slimbridge, and it’s such an exciting time, seeing old friends coming back,’ she says. ‘Of course, you have favourites. I had a pair under my bedroom window called Peasant and Gypsy, which my father painted for me-I’ve still got the picture. Later on, there were Leo and Stella. They returned one beautiful Christmas Day morning with four cygnets-the best Christmas present I’ve ever had.’ More than 300 Bewick’s swans now fly some 2,500 miles from the frozen tundra of northern Russia to spend the winter at Slimbridge-this month, lead researcher Julia Newth expects to record and name the study’s 10,000th Bewick’s swan-and thousands more arrive on the Ouse Washes in Norfolk.

However, Miss Scott adds that the swan study, in which the birds are now satellite tagged-in the early days, their tail feathers were dyed-and X-rayed to see how much lead shot they’re carrying, has never been more important because the birds have been in decline for the past decade. Unlike their forebears 50 years ago, they will face wind turbines and power lines and, despite being protected by law in every country they fly over, 23% of swans X-rayed are found to have been shot. The WWT runs daily floodlit swanfeeding sessions (at 4pm) until December 23 at Slimbridge and you can adopt a Bewick’s swan for £5 a month-Coddle, Smiles and Butterbur are among those looking for love (01453 891900; www.wwt.org.uk).

Image: Sir Peter Scott, pioneer of wildfowl research, beside ‘Swan Lake’ at Slimbridge, courtesy of the WWT

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