Peter Booton visits the famous colony of nesting mute swans at Abbotsbury
Published in September ’16
A swannery was created at Abbotsbury by Benedictine monks following their foundation of a monastery there in the mid-11th century, with the purpose of providing food for themselves and their guests. Situated at the western end of the Fleet lagoon, the location was ideal for nesting swans as it provided all the essentials: shallow, brackish water, eel grass for food and marsh reed beds for nesting material. During the Middle Ages, swans were considered a highly-prized source of food for serving at ceremonial banquets to impress guests.
However, in 1539 the Benedictine monastery of St Peter’s at Abbotsbury fell victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Swannery was then purchased by the Strangways family, who, through the Ilchester Estate, still own and manage land covering Chesil Beach and Abbotsbury, including the bed of the Fleet. Abbotsbury Swannery today is the only place in the world where visitors can walk freely through a colony of mute swans, watch cygnets hatching and assist twice daily with the hand-feeding of swans.
During 2016 the Swannery is open to the public every day until 30 October. There is always much to see, although for many people, especially families with young children, the most popular time to visit is between mid-May and the end of June, when the cygnets are hatching. July onwards is a good time to watch the fluffy grey cygnets gradually develop the essential skills that will help them survive in the wild, and by the end of October they will be able to fly.
The mute swan, so named because it is less noisy than other swans, is among the oldest bird species still extant. Mute swans invariably mate for life and pairs that have previously nested at Abbotsbury normally return to the same spot year after year. Swans are notoriously territorial creatures, so the close confines of the Abbotsbury site create a number of problems for the Swannery team who look after the birds. The swans mostly seem to accept the close proximity of others, probably because they appreciate just how good life is for them on the Fleet, but they can also be the neighbours from hell if provoked. More often than not the transgressor is a young cygnet who has become separated from his parents and wandered into another family’s territory. In these circumstances it is not unusual for a stray cygnet to be mercilessly attacked by mature swans.
Mass feeding of all the swans takes place at 8.30 in the morning, noon and 4.00 in the afternoon, with assistance from visitors at the two later times. Although this may seem merely a way to involve and entertain the public, there are very good reasons for this planned and carefully executed feeding regime. Delivering food at set times to each individual nest encourages families to remain within their own territories and consequently reduces the risk of cygnets straying while in search of food. But before the nesting birds and their young can be fed, it is necessary to encourage non-breeders into the water where they can be fed and kept away from the others. And that is where visiting children and adults come in useful, by helping to feed the non-breeders a small amount of wheat. Breeding birds and cygnets receive a mixture of wheat and chick crumb, which is high in protein, and eel grass. The type of food varies as the breeding season progresses. Initially, cress collected from local streams is given to the new-born cygnets, then after a month or so they are introduced to eel grass that has been washed up further down the lagoon and brought back to the Swannery.
There are 50 acres of reed beds on the Fleet and these provide excellent nesting material for the swans. Piles of cut reeds are provided so that swans can build their own nests where they choose. This can be anywhere, and if it happens to be on a pathway then the path has to be diverted, as any attempt to place the nest elsewhere only results in the swans returning it to its original location.
There is certainly plenty to fill the working day of the Swannery team, which includes Swanherd Dave Wheeler, who has held the position since 2001, Deputy Swanherd Steve Groves, who maintains a regular birdwatch blog on the Abbotsbury Swannery website, and various other members of staff who carry out a wide range of duties. Dave says, ‘Swans deserve respect. We’re dealing with wild animals and they need to protect and nurture their young. We admire them for doing their very best. Some, though, are more capable than others. Fortunately they are approachable. We study them and do a sort of swan social work in order to help families and ensure that they have a reasonable chance of surviving in the wild, as they do have predators. Being a swanherd is a very unusual job and the variety of work is incredible.’
The welfare of the swans and their cygnets is paramount. Every two years, all the swans are rounded up, examined, measured and weighed. Any new birds are ringed. Swans on the lagoon at this time are driven from the eastern end of the Fleet into the Swannery bay by dozens of manned canoes. Sometimes cygnets are abandoned by their parents, so they are placed in special rearing pens with established families until they are able to fend for themselves when they are released. There is a casualty pen, too, where injured birds can be nursed back to good health.
Ringing each newly hatched cygnet is a crucially important job, as it allows the young birds to be tracked and rescued if they stray, and then returned safely to their parents. To ensure ringing is done as soon as possible after cygnets are hatched, each nest is inspected daily and egg-laying recorded. By knowing the dates of eggs, it is possible to calculate when clutches will hatch. Eggs, weighing approximately 12 ounces (350 grams), are normally laid at two-day intervals, but a mother can delay incubation until the last egg is laid so that they all hatch at the same time, 35 days later. The day after the cygnets are hatched, they are sexed and tagged with a unique number, the Estate logo and the Abbotsbury Swannery postcode. Dave Wheeler explains, ‘Should cygnets get lost, we know who they belong to because we ring the adults and we know where the parents are nesting thanks to GPS readings taken for every nest. So it’s just a formality to return the cygnets to their parents.’
The Crown still retains the right of ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, with the exception of those ringed at Abbotsbury, which belong to the Ilchester Estate. For around six weeks during June and July, swans become flightless as they lose their feathers and begin to grow new ones. ‘These are very delicate and if damaged a swan will bleed profusely,’ explains Dave Wheeler. ‘So, nesting birds take it in turns to nest. The female (pen) will moult her primary flight feathers at the same time as swans that are not breeding, but the male (cob) has the ability to delay his moult until the female has completed her moult, and so she can then defend their young while he moults.’ A swan’s primary wing feathers are highly sought after by calligraphers, who have them made into quill pens. Traditionally, Lloyds of London use quill pens to record shipping accidents in the ‘Doom Book’ and it is likely that the loss of the Titanic was written with a quill pen originating from an Abbotsbury swan. Flight feathers can also be used to gently brush bees from honeycomb and clean the delicate workings of a mechanical clock. Small flexible feathers from the base of a swan’s wing are supplied by the Swannery to the Plumery in London, who hand-sew them into the ceremonial head-dresses of Her Majesty’s Bodyguard, the Gentlemen at Arms.
On 23 November 1824, a great storm lashed the coast from Lyme Regis to Christchurch, breaching the shingle defences of Chesil Bank and inundating the village of Fleet. Five houses were swept away and part of its parish church destroyed. A thatched stone hut at Abbotsbury also fell prey to the storm and today a white painted pole with a red band records the flood water at that point as being 22 feet 8 inches deep! The hut has since been rebuilt, but never lived in, and it now serves as a visitor information room containing historic exhibits and displays which provide a fascinating introduction to the dedicated work being carried out at the Swannery.