Types of Swans Rescued
Mute swans, with their dazzling white plumage, orange bills and gracefully curved necks are among the most beautiful and instantly recognizable of all our wild birds. They live on areas of open water, rivers, ponds and canals throughout lowland Britain – either in towns or the countryside – and perhaps because they show little fear of human beings we tend to treat them with great affection and respect. Yet their serene, placid appearance can be deceptive. We need only see these magnificent birds flying low over the water, their long necks outstretched and massive wings whining noisily as they beat the air, to appreciate their true power and strength.
The mysterious bond that exists between man and swan stretches back into antiquity and is celebrated in countless European myths and fairy tales, but the mute swan’s original value to our ancestors was more down-to-earth. From early times in Britain swans were kept in a semi-domesticated state as a source of food. Sometimes cygnets would be captured in the wild and taken home to be fattened for the table, but many birds were kept in carefully tended swanneries within the grounds of monasteries or castles where they were allowed to breed. Old records show that the menu for an important medieval banquet might include as many as fifty swans.
In fact swans were such valuable commodities that by the end of the Middle Ages they were being marked as belonging to the Church or noblemen by special nicks carved onto their bills or feet. These identifying marks were registered with the Crown under the supervision of the Royal Swan Master, and all unmarked birds were considered property of the monarch. It was illegal to kill a ‘royal’ bird, and this may well have saved the species from being hunted to extinction in Britain.
Swans are no longer kept for food, but in England the Crown still has an official Swan Keeper and the ancient ceremony of swan-upping, when swans on the Thames are rounded up for identification by the Crown, still takes place on the Monday of the third week in July.
The Famous Berwick Swans:
Over the years the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has become home to the second largest mute swan colony in Britain. The swans are now such a familiar feature of the Tweed estuary that they have become a well-known tourist attraction, and at peak times almost 800 birds have been counted on the river. The Berwick herd is what is known as a ‘moulting colony’, and this means that numbers fluctuate throughout the year. There are around 200 permanent residents (mainly non-breeding adults and juvenile birds) but the size of the herd increases in late summer and through the winter as swans from other areas arrive to undergo the annual moult or to take advantage of the rich feeding at the Tweed estuary.
Not all mute swans join moulting colonies: birds that nest and rear young will moult on their own breeding territory, but may fly in as a family group to join the Berwick herd once the moult is completed. Other young birds arrive at Berwick from October onwards to overwinter, or for longer periods. When the moult is completed many of the adult birds return to their home waters.
During the six week period of the moult swans require a steady supply of food. The wing pinions are among the first feathers to be shed, leaving the birds completely flightless and unable to visit favored feeding grounds, so it is not surprising that many choose to gather on estuaries such as the Tweed before the moult begins. Britain’s estuaries remain ice-free during the winter months, and are one of the most fertile of all natural environments.
Around half of Europe’s waders and huge numbers of wildfowl overwinter in and around our estuaries, and although we usually think of mute swans as freshwater birds they regularly eat seaweeds and algae in salt water. In autumn it is not unusual to see groups of Berwick swans swimming round the pier and into the sea bay at Meadow Haven to feed along the shore.
Britain’s largest mute swan colony at Abbotsbury in Dorset is unusual in that the birds nest close together in a colony, having been fed, provided with nest sites, and cared for by swan herds for almost 900 years. In contrast, the Berwick swans do not breed at the estuary, and the nearest nesting site is several miles upstream at the mouth of the river Whiteadder. It is, however, possible that Berwick’s past connections with royalty meant that in medieval times swans were farmed locally to provide food for state banquets.
Accurate records of the numbers of swans at Berwick have only been kept since the 1950’s, but it is clear that the population increased considerably in the latter part of the twentieth century. Elderly residents report having seen very few swans at the beginning of the century, but by the 1950’s over 200 birds were being recorded annually, and in September 1994 a record 787 birds were counted. This increase in numbers mirrors the growth of the mute swan population throughout the country as a whole.