Exeter man is flying round the world on a real wild goose chase
Chewing on raw reindeer meat after a day flying over a frozen wilderness with a two-stroke engine strapped to your back isn't everyone's idea of a "trip of a lifetime" but that's exactly how Dan Burton described his latest adventure.
Dan, from Exeter, is part of a small team whose aim is to inform the world about the decline of Bewick's swans.
A cameraman, photographer and keen paramotor pilot, it was Dan's job to capture footage for Flight Of The Swans, a charity expedition that is currently following the birds' 7500km migration from northern Russia to the UK. The flock of Bewick's swans, accompanied by expedition leader Sacha Dench, are expected to arrive at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust's Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire later this month.
Dan – who explained that a paramotor consists of a simple two-stroke engine with a propeller, cage, and parachute foil worn like a rucksack and harness – flew the first leg of the migration.
"Sacha came up with the idea of doing this to make people more aware that the population of Bewick's swans are depleting," he said. "It's not certain why this is happening, although we do know that some are lost through being hunted, while others are unintentionally poisoned with lead pellets or from flying into power lines. Sacha had the idea to follow the route of the migration and inform the global media by talking to local people along the way about what's happening."
The flight will take the team over Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, France and England. Dan's five-week, 2000km leg went from northern Russia to the border with Europe.
"I was flying alongside Sacha for most of that time," he said. "Typically you can fly for up to two hours or about 100 miles on one tank of fuel. We followed the swans and were able to monitor them, but it's important not to fly too close because it could scare them."
Bewick's swans overwinter in the UK, before flying over to Russia to breed in the spring and summer.
"When we were there a few weeks ago the temperature was minus three – but it can reach minus forty-five degrees in the depth of winter, and the swans can't survive in those conditions."
A regular paramotor flier, Dan spends much of his free time exploring the skies over Topsham, Exmouth, South Hams, Dartmoor, North Devon and into Cornwall. He plans to cross the English Channel when Sacha arrives in northern France, and accompany her on the final leg to Slimbridge.
"The key part of this mammoth expedition is to educate people along the way and, by extension, spark the interest of people around the world," he said. "Sacha has been visiting wetland groups, schools and other organisations along the whole route. She has made it into a global story."
But if anyone is under the impression that paramotoring 7500km is something of a jolly, Dan is ready to put them right.
"A lot of people ask what the hardest part was – and for me it was the vast open spaces," he said. "Until you fly across the Russian tundra it's impossible to imagine real wilderness – it's hundreds and hundreds of miles of nothing and it's quite a daunting prospect because you know if you're forced to land, you're on your own. It's a beautiful place from the air but you wouldn't want to be there alone in that flat barren wilderness. Having said that, it really was the trip of a lifetime."
And Dan did get to "dine" on reindeer meat.
"We landed in a reindeer camp," he said. "The people who work it live there all the year round. We were hungry and they offered to feed us. We were led to a hole in the ground which was covered in sticks and leaves and underneath that was a tarpaulin over a barrel.
"And in the barrel was every part of a reindeer. The smell was rank; it was a dead smell and they told us the meat had been there for a month.
"Well, one of the guys pulled out some steaks from beneath the blood and bits, cut them up into small pieces and began to eat it raw. To our surprise, it was not that bad – and tasted a bit like blue cheese. Later, we fried some more up in a pan with mushrooms and reindeer lard and it tasted really good."
You can follow the progress of the swans, along with Sacha and her team, by going to flightoftheswans.org