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Living treasures of Dorset: Dick Dalley, retired swanherd

Portrait by Millie Pilkington, pen-portrait by Liz Pope

Anthony ‘Dick’ Dalley officially retired in 2001, but over a decade later he is still to be found at Abbotsbury Swannery, leaning on his swanherd’s crook, which is beautifully crafted hazel with a ram’s horn hook, essential for catching swans round the neck.
He was given the nickname Dick as a small boy, after the radio programme Dick Barton: Special Agent. He lived at Chickerell on the outskirts of Weymouth then, and so he doesn’t consider himself a ‘local’ as it is nine miles up the road from Abbotsbury. When he was first offered the job at the Swannery, he remembers, ‘I said “I’m not going out to Abbotsbury, they’re not civilised out there…”, but then I met my wife and did eventually get here.’
Dick gave up his job in the fruit trade and began working at the Swannery in 1961 as a swankeeper, living in an old cottage called Clouds Hill on the edge of the Fleet lagoon. As part of the job Dick had to fatten the swans for the then Lord Ilchester’s table – swans weren’t protected until 1974: ‘It wasn’t a job I enjoyed,’ Dick recalls. He was promoted to under-swanherd and eventually swanherd: ‘I’ve been working here nearly 50 years now. I know quite a bit about swans.’
He has, though, learned the hard way that swans can be dangerous. Dick had his head split open and was knocked out when he was dealing with a pen (a female swan) with cygnets; although his friend tried to warn him there was a swan coming off the water, he was hit in the back of the neck by the pen’s mate, which, ‘weighing 30 lbs going 30 mph is quite a weight to hit you when you’re not expecting it. Everything went black. When I come to I still had hold of her by the neck, but I was so vexed that some of the cygnets got hurt.’
It would seem that Dick will never really retire. He is as much a part of Abbotsbury’s famous swannery as the swans themselves. It’s unlikely he will ever move another nine miles from his home again, either. ‘Dorset’s home, oh aye. Somebody suggested going to Spain once, shan’t do that again!’

• Abridged from Great Faces by Millie Pilkington and Liz Pope.

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