The mute swan, Cygnus olor (derived from two words meaning “swan”, the former being the Latin, and the latter apparently derived from an old Celtic name for the species of bird) is found in many parts of the world, and is known in Britain as the “Royal Bird”. It is protected by law known as “the Royal Prerogative”. That means it is a criminal offence to harm them or damage their nests or eggs. Despite their privileged legal status there are continuing concerns about their welfare and the preservation of their habitat.
Mute swans may be seen in large groups or flocks across the countryside but when they breed in Britain they are mainly solitary pairs. Once ready to leave their parents the young will look to join a flock where they learn “social behaviour” during the following three years of life. When people see large flocks they often find it hard to believe that these birds need continuing protection if their numbers are not to decrease to dangerously low levels.
Swans have few natural enemies. They are mainly vegetarian and generally only show aggression when defending their young. Almost all the threats to their survival and welfare come from human beings. In the 1970s swan numbers were drastically declining and one of the likely factors was the lead poisoning caused by fishing weights used by anglers. Since the 1990s the use of lead in fishing has been banned and there have been fewer mortalities probably as a direct consequence. There are still some deaths from lead poisoning but that is probably due to the existence of some lead lying just beneath the surface of river mud which is swallowed by foraging birds, or by environmental lead in the water areas caused by “road run-off”, namely petrol fuel. Careless fishing which causes “hooked” or “tackled birds” also poses a continuing problem.
A major concern is the number of birds that die each year from collisions with overhead power cables. This has been recognised as a problem for decades and, thankfully, some of the power companies have finally started to take positive action, especially EDF Energy who are pioneering in this respect. Other companies still pay lip service to the protection of these birds when what they should be doing is simply marking these lines with brightly coloured balls or shiny disks which would largely eliminate the threat. Swans are large, heavy birds; when flying at speeds of thirty to fifty miles an hour they have difficulty in swerving and also have poor forward vision. Whole flocks, as well as individuals, frequently collide with power lines. If they aren’t killed outright by electrocution they suffer burns and broken wings. Countless smaller birds also hit lines but probably go unnoticed as they are not large and white.
Pollution is another factor in causing high mortality. This may be in the form of human sewage leaks, diesel oil, refined oil, or general litter. A swan that is caught in an industrial diesel spill not only risks death by drowning (because its feathers become waterlogged), but also because, when ingested, diesel causes burning and subsequent destruction of vital organs. Death in such cases may take several weeks and cause untold suffering. The guardians of our waterways, such as the Environment Agency and British Waterways, are active in investigating such disasters and have the necessary authority to act against offenders. In 1995 The Swan Sanctuary was commissioned to produce an Oil Spill Management Plan for inland and coastal waters by the National Rivers Authority (Environment Agency).
Loss of natural habitat is an ever-growing problem. As the demand for roads and housing increases there is an inevitable loss of suitable nesting and feeding grounds. Planning authorities need to exercise careful, enlightened management of key areas which can impact adversely on swan habitat and welfare. For instance, it is obviously necessary for water authorities to dredge river areas but care needs to be taken to provide slopes rather than steep, straight sides to the banks. If habitat declines so will future generations of swans.
Sadly it is not uncommon for swans to be shot, have their nests vandalised, or have their eggs stolen. As of 10th February 2011, The Crime & Security Act 2010 (S.46) makes it an offence
“…for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent any person under the age of eighteen from having the weapon with him.”
This legislation essentially relates to the storage of airguns and the requirement of owners to prevent unauthorised access by children. Failure to do so renders owners liable for a fine of up to £1,000.
The most taxing time is when the young cygnets take to the water at two to three days old. Pike, herons, crows and even mink in some areas may take the unwary young. Foxes, the only natural land predator, are known to take on healthy, fully-grown swans as well as weak or sick birds which are obviously more at risk. The mink, which have increased in numbers over the years, are also an increasing threat to swans. Botulism, a natural organism found in slow-running water areas in warm weather, has been known to kill large flocks when they feed on decaying green matter. When this occurs an expert needs to spot symptoms in the first few hours and provide suitable treatment immediately; otherwise it will be too late.
The mute swan is possibly the most beautiful living ornament of our lakes and rivers but continued vigilance is needed to ensure its welfare and protection. Such vigilance is also vital if our future generations are not to be deprived of seeing and knowing these birds. They have been associated with us for over a thousand years, perhaps even longer, but if we are not careful they could be just a memory a hundred years from now.
Dorothy Beeson, BEM
Dorothy Beeson is The Swan Sanctuary’s founder and recipient of the British Empire Medal for her unstinting work in swan welfare which started in her back garden in the early 1980s. Over the years Dot’s work outgrew her garden so she sold her house to help finance the cost of setting up the first national sanctuary on a 2-acre site in Egham, Surrey where she lived in a caravan with her partner, Stephen Knight.
The sanctuary’s workload rapidly increased on the council-owned site and it became clear that a larger site was needed with security of tenure. Finally, after years of searching, high hopes, shattered dreams and utter frustration, a new home for the sanctuary was found in Shepperton, Middlesex. Steve, with his team of volunteers, started work on the new site on 1 January 2005 and, after 6 months of hard work, the sanctuary was finally able to transfer its operations and leave the Egham site. This new site, as you’ll find detailed elsewhere on this web site, gave the sanctuary the chance to start afresh on a much larger scale and, in time, finally open to the public – a dream that Dot & Steve have wanted to fulfill for over a decade.
Queen Noor of Jordan
Marchioness of Salisbury
Lady Patricia Marina Hobson OBE
Sir John and Lady Egan
The Hon. Russell and Marcia Mishcon
David and Molly Borthwick
The Former Patrons
Lord and Lady Remnant
Sir Ronald Hobson KCVO
Dorothy Beeson MBE BEM (founder)
The Swan Sanctuary is on 24-hour alert, 365 days a year. When a ‘swan in distress’ call comes in the local rescue squad is on its way within minutes. At the scene the rescuers assess the situation and provide ‘front-line’ emergency treatment. More seriously injured birds are then rushed to the sanctuary for intensive care.
At the sanctuary each injured bird is examined and, if necessary, X-rayed before going into our operating theatre – the only one of its kind in the country – where a full range of anaesthetic, oxygenation and surgical equipment is available.
After initial treatment each patient is transferred to the intensive care ward and its condition closely monitored.
Once a bird regains fitness it is placed in one of our outdoor rehabilitation pens. Each swan is placed among those from the area closest to its home territory. Finally, after a lot of care, attention and highly nutritious food, the swan is ready for the most satisfying part of the sanctuary’s work – the return to its natural habitat.
Sometimes a disabled bird is no longer capable of defending its territory and its young. In these cases we consult our list of ‘protected’ waters to find the swan a new home where help is on hand. We are always on the look out for suitable new lakes and waterways so, if you feel you can help, please visit our Safe Water for Rehoming Swans page.
See Wikipedia for more information about The Swan Sanctuary.