Britain loves swans. So why are we doing them untold harm? | Birds


To the British, the swan is not so much a bird as it is a national treasure – the avian equivalent of Dame Judi Dench or Sir David Attenborough. Her unique status is the result of her long and complex history living alongside us, a relationship that stretches back over a thousand years.

The alarm bells last week’s reports that dozens of swans and swans have died from bird flu in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon – up to half the town’s population – we recalled how passionate the British public is about the bird.

Swans are both more vulnerable than many other birds to the disease, and being so large and obvious, when they show symptoms more likely to be noticed. The city’s former mayor, Cyril Bennis, who has campaigned for local swans for four decades, called the deaths “heartbreaking”.

Stratford swans – and the species we usually see in the ponds, lakes, rivers and gravel pits in our park – are mute swans; yet, despite the name, they can and do produce a wide range of sounds. “Mute” was chosen to contrast with the Whooper Swan which, as the name suggests, emits a loud, honking call in flight.

What is not so well known is that the mute swan was once called the “tame swan”. This was in part to distinguish it from the two species of “wild swans” – the singer and his little cousin, the Bewick – who are both winter visitors to Britain from Iceland, Scandinavia and Siberia. The term “tamed” was applied because, for over a millennium, from the Anglo-Saxon era to the 19th century, swans were raised in swans. Today only one of them, in Abbotsbury in Dorset, survives.

Natalie Portman as Nina in the movie Black Swan. Photograph: Fox Searchlight / Allstar

Swans were not only kept as a source of feathers and meat (tender swans being preferred over the much harder and thicker flesh of adults), but also as a status symbol; To possess them was in the gift of the monarch, who would grant to the favored nobles the right to keep swans. Such was the value of these magnificent birds that killing a swan was considered treason, and taking even a single egg could result in a year in prison.

The fact that swans were part of the gift of the crown led to another myth – that all swans in Britain belong to the queen. They are not; although the annual Thames Swan Rise Ceremony, during which the new year swans are captured and tagged, denotes royal ownership of some.

A poster for Disney's Ugly Duckling from 1939
A poster for Disney’s Ugly Duckling from 1939. Photograph: LMPC / Getty Images

Unlike most birds, swans are indeed very tame. Sometimes they can get closer than you would like, especially if you are in their territory during the breeding season. And while the belief that a swan can break a man’s arm with a single flick of the wing is another myth, when a big buck rushes towards you with outstretched wings, whistling loudly, it can be. pretty scary. As the official director of the Queen’s Swans, Professor Christopher Perrins, points out, not everyone likes swans.

Unsurprisingly for such a huge and remarkable bird, swans feature more than almost any other species in myth and legend, art and literature, across much of the northern hemisphere.

Ancient swan myths include Leda and the swan. It dates back to ancient Greece, when the almighty god Zeus supposedly turned into a swan so he could approach – and then seduce – Leda, Queen of Sparta. This story has featured prominently in the art, poems and music of, among others, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, WB Yeats and Lou Reed, all apparently captivated by the taboo subject of sex between a swan and a wife.

Perhaps the most famous depiction of swans can be found in Tchaikovsky’s astonishing work. Swan Lake, the most performed and perhaps the most beloved ballet of all time. Besides the wonderful music, its popularity is surely also due to the visual beauty of the white swan at the heart of the story. A darker side of swans was explored in the 2010 film Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, a tale of rivalry and madness, which swept the table at the Oscars the following year.

Amidst all of this history, mythology, and culture, it’s easy to forget that the swan is a real bird who, despite its size, can also be extremely vulnerable. In addition to suffering from bird flu, swans can die from dog attacks, plastic waste, thrown fishing gear, collisions with pylons or wind turbines, and – a very current threat – waterways. polluted by raw sewage.

At the end of the first lockdown in the summer of 2020, there was also a surge in the number of swans being deliberately killed with air rifles and catapults – often leaving swans behind to starve to death. As a nation we may love swans, but we also do untold damage to them.

The Swan: A Biography, by Stephen Moss (Square Peg) is out now. He is a Somerset-based naturalist and author who heads the Nature and Travel Writing Course at Bath Spa University

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