Swanning about by the river

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 14th July 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 12th July 2017)

Last weekend, I was pottering alongside the river with the pooches when I came upon a woman holding a very large mute swan wrapped in a sleeping bag. It was a peculiar scene, and as I drew closer, I could see that she was struggling not only with the swan, but also with a phone balanced precariously between her shoulder and her ear.

“I’m trying to call the RSPCA,” she said breathlessly, “But I can’t press the buttons!”

I offered to take the phone and make the call, all the time keeping a keen eye on the swan as I knew they could be quite vicious if under threat. But this one only hissed his displeasure when the inquisitive dogs came too close.

Apparently the swan had hurt his leg, so this lady had caught it before it hurt itself further. He was calm because his wings were folded in the sleeping bag, and he could still see his mate and brood of cygnets just a few metres away. By the time I’d made the call, the poor woman was beginning to buckle under its considerable weight and I guided her to a nearby seat. She managed to sit down and still hold on to this extremely handsome bird. Her family were not far away, so I alerted them, and then carried on with my walk, comforted that the RSPCA was on the way, and her family were on hand (Having checked the RSPCA website, it suggests not to pick up injured wildlife unless safe to do so).

Mute swans are the largest and most common species in the UK, recognised by their long S-shaped neck and orange bill. We are home to just two other species, Bewick’s, the smallest, with a black and yellow bill, and the larger whooper which is similar, although its bill has a larger proportion of yellow on it.

There is something about swans that makes me feel a sense of privilege whenever I see them. They seem almost regal and some people are under the misapprehension that all swans belong to the Crown, although it isn’t true. Historically, though, the Monarch is entitled to claim or transfer ownership of any unmarked mute swans living in open water, and this right is recorded as far back as 1186. Young birds were highly prized as a source of meat for feasts and banquets, but as domestic poultry became more easily available, the ownership of swans diminished in importance.

My dad, Peter Walker, wrote about their royal heritage in his column from 9th July 1977. He explained that the third week in July was the time of the ‘swan-upping’ ceremonies, which is the annual census of mute swans on the River Thames. It is quite the visual spectacle, involving six wooden skiffs manned by uniformed ‘swan-uppers’. The skiffs bear the flags of Her Majesty the Queen, and also those of the only two other bodies who can now claim ownership of swans on the Thames, those of the Dyers’ and Vintners livery companies, who both received their rights to own swans in the late fifteenth century.

Today, the ceremonies are about swan conservation and education, with local school children invited to witness the work of the swan-uppers. The adult birds and cygnets are counted, and checked for injuries, the most common being caused by fishing tackle. In 1985, the census counted only seven breeding pairs on the Thames between London and Henley, their population having been decimated by poisoning caused by lead in fishing weights. Thankfully, the lead was banned, and the figures have recovered, although they are still significantly less than before the Second World War, with hazards like overhead wires, oil pollution, vandalism and dog attacks cited as just some of the reasons why (according the the website, royalswan.co.uk).

Thankfully, here in the north-east we can still see healthy numbers of breeding swan pairs in our lakes and along our riverbanks. Let’s hope the generations to come will continue to enjoy this privilege.

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