Baz Hughes, WWT’s Head of Species Conservation writes:
Wow. What a day we had on Friday!
I couldn’t sleep the night before. I woke up at 5.30am thinking how would 13 tiny little Spoon-billed Sandpipers cope with being boxed up for 17 hours and flown from Moscow to Heathrow and then driven to Slimbridge.
No-one knew because it had never been done before…
My working day started at 6.05am when I got a text from Nige saying he’d just gone through passport control in Moscow, having left the Spoon-billed Sandpipers an hour ago.
I think … “I wonder how the birds are?”
Then another text at 7.25am saying he was about to board, then another at 7.59am saying he was on board the plane and his feeling that “the spoon-billed sandpipers must be below me”.
After dropping my daughter, Holly, off at school I headed to Slimbridge where I met up with the WWT team who had worked so hard to prepare for the arrival of our precious cargo.
Rebecca Lee, Senior Species Conservation Officer and Nicki Hiscock, Conservation Breeding Assistant. The amount of preparatory work these guys have put in – dealing with logistics and preparing the quarantine station for the birds – cannot be underestimated. They’ve done a fantastic job.
We then met with the team who would be travelling to Heathrow to pick up the birds and are briefed by Becs on our itinerary – put simply, drive to the City of London Corporation’s Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow in two cars, pick up the birds, one crate of birds in each car, on the way back. With the military precision planning of our Conservation Breeding Unit, it was actually more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you the details.
At this point, we all think … “I wonder how the birds are?”
9.05am – we set off from Slimbridge.
In one car there was Pete Cranswick, our Head of Species Recovery, and Michelle O’Brien, our vet.
In the other, I shared a ride with our Head of Media, Sacha Dench, who would be filming the birds’ arrival.
On the Aeroflot flight due to land at 12.15pm. If all went to plan…
10.00am – I’m driving along the M4 east to London. Sacha gets a call to say the plane is now due to land at 11.28am.
10.01am – we go a little faster.
11.00am – we arrive at the Animal Reception Centre in good time.
And meet Animal Health Officer Stuart King, star of the BBC documentary television series “Airport” – basically the guy in charge of checking the birds over when they land, and in his own words “making sure they are what you say they are”. No mistaking spoon-billed sands, so hopefully no problem there!
11.35am – text from Nige saying they’ve landed.
We all think … “I wonder how the birds are?”
11.45am – Stuart sets off to pick the birds up from the Aeroflot flight.
12.15pm – Stuart returns with the birds from the Aeroflot flight.
He toots his horn at me as he drives into the Animal Reception Centre and gives me the thumbs up.
I think … “the birds must be okay”. I hope.
I hope … “the birds must be okay”.
The birds are then offloaded and, through the mesh of a carrying crate (which Stuart said was one of the best carrying crates he had ever seen), I see, for the first time in my life, a spoon-billed sandpiper.
Or, more accurately, I see 13 spoon-billed sandpipers, all alive and well and chirruping away to each other.
A film crew immediately stick a camera in Pete’s face asking him how he feels. He does a fantastic job of describing the emotion of the moment. Glad they didn’t stick it in my face. I would have just burst into tears.
12.30pm – I pick Nige and Roland up from Terminal 4 and return to Animal Reception Centre.
Then there was lots of checking birds and form filling and such stuff. Our thanks to Stuart and his staff at the City of London Corporation and to Liz Schickle, the vet, for fast-tracking the birds through the system.
2.15pm – we get on the road back to Slimbridge.
The birds are mysteriously silent all the way home. Nige says they’re probably asleep and doesn’t seem worried.
‘Never have I (certainly never has Pete) driven so carefully before – having 4% of the world population of one of the most critically endangered birds in the boot makes your right foot a little lighter!’
4.15pm – we arrive at the Slimbridge quarantine station.
Nige, Roland and the rest of the team go in to make the final checks to the facilities and prepare them for the birds. As well as providing food and water, they also put little artificial Christmas trees into the aviaries – sometimes the birds seek comfort from these (scroll down to see a photo of one of the spoon-billed sand chicks sleeping against one in Moscow).
4.30pm – Pete and I carry the precious crates of birds into the quarantine station and then leave the team to go and fill up the hire cars with petrol. We leave the experts to it – examining the birds and putting them into their new accommodation.
5.15pm – everything is done. We now have three groups of four, four and five spoon-billed sandpipers in the quarantine station at Slimbridge.
We stand in a circle outside the station discussing next steps.
The whole team (those mentioned above plus Dr. Ruth Cromie, our Head of Wildlife Health) is strangely subdued (very, very unusually for this lot!).
Even a day later, I’m not sure why this was.
Because we were all tired? Undoubtedly. Not physically, but mentally exhausted.
Or was it because we, subconsciously, realised what we’d achieved?
I know that, despite the incredible amount of effort we’ve all put into this project, this is only the start, but to say I’m proud of our WWT Conservation Breeding Team, would be the understatement of my life.
They are true “conservation heroes”.
PS. 10.30pm. I think … “the birds are okay”… And go to sleep.