COUNTRYSIDE NOTES MARCH 2018 SWANS

On February 5th one tabloid’s headlines read ‘QUEEN’S SWANS KILLED BY BIRD FLU’
Some strains of bird flu are highly contagious; it’s always a concern when it’s identified in wild birds. The disease is carried across countries by migratory birds.
We are all familiar with our resident orange billed Mute swan found on rivers and lakes. The male is known as a ‘cob’, the female a ‘pen’ and the young as cygnets. Mute swans normally live as solitary pairs and aggressively defend their territories so it is unusual to find them nesting as a colony but this happens at Abbotsbury Swannery on the Dorset coast. It is the only managed colony of nesting Mute swans in the world with an estimated 150 pairs. They are free flying and the Swannery is believed to have been set up by Benedictine monks in the eleventh century with records dating back to 1393. There are also estimated to be about 120 pairs of black swans breeding in the wild. Native to Australia, these were first brought to Britain as ornamentals in1791 and are most likely to be seen at Dawlish in Devon. Two other species migrate to Britain for the winter. Anyone who has been to Welney Wildfowl Centre and witnessed the swan feeds will probably have seen them. Whooper swans, which have black and yellow bills, arrive in autumn from Iceland and their cousins the Bewicks, very similar in appearance but smaller, come all the way from arctic Russia.
Reference to the swans being the property of the Queen is not quite accurate. They don’t actually belong to her but she has the right to claim ownership of any found in her realm. A thousand years ago the taking of swans was the prerogative of the monarch. Classed as livestock, flocks of swans are still known as herds. The practice of swan ‘Upping’ dates back to the twelfth century when roasted swan featured on the menu of every medieval feast. These were actually cygnets which is a French term describing a swan young enough to be eaten, one that still has its brown juvenile plumage. The custom of ‘Upping’ on the river Thames continues to this day, this year beginning on July 16th at Sunbury and finishing at Abingdon on July 20th. The official Swan Markers wear Her Majesty’s scarlet uniform and work from traditional Thames rowing skiffs. Accompanying them are ‘Uppers’ from the Vintners and Dyers Livery companies who also own swans on the Thames. The first documented evidence of this dates from 1509. The cygnets are caught, data is collected, their general health assessed and a careful check made for injuries which most likely occur through being attacked by dogs or snagged on fishing lines. Finally a ring is attached to one leg providing them with an identity number.
These annual censuses have shown that swan numbers on the Thames are in decline and it is of great concern that this outbreak of bird flu may decimate the population.

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