William Shakespeare was known as ‘The Swan of Avon’; Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ is a ballet of immense importance; ‘Leda and the Swan’ is a sonnet by William Butler Yeats, acknowledged as a masterpiece – all these artistic works suggest the way that the swan, and particularly the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), has permeated European culture for thousands of years.
If you live in Great Britain, it is likely that the Mute Swan is the largest bird that you will see. Although there are other significant swan species in the British Isles – the Whistling Swan (Cygnus columbianus) and Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus bewickii) often thought of as being one species, known as the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus), and the Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) – these tend to be much less common, and tend to be confined to specific locations in the UK. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust undertakes surveys of the swan populations in the UK every five years. Data from the 2005 survey indicated that there were 7,216 Bewick’s Swans (with 79% being found close to the Rivers Ouse and Nene in eastern England), 6,480 Whooper’s Swans, and no less than 43,000+ Mute Swans - these particular Mute Swans are at Cold Knap Lake, in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales.
The Mute Swan is (like all other swans) protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981. It breeds almost everywhere, with the exception of the moorland areas of south-western England, the mountainous parts of Mid-Wales and extreme Northern Scotland. The swan tends to mate for life, and builds a ramshackle nest close to water. Cygnets are covered in grey, fluffy down, and share their parents diet of water weeds, molluscs and insects. They will graze on grasses, as will other swans and geese, and eat grains (they, of course, eat bread if it is offered to them, but it is not an ideal food for swans).
Swans were a treasured food of the nobility during the Middle Ages; indeed, the Sovereign retains ownership of ALL swans on open water in England and Wales, but only exercises the right to count, mark and examine young swans on the Upper Thames. Two other bodies share in the task of ‘swan-upping’, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, which takes place each year on Monday in the third week of July, on the non-tidal portion of the Thames above Teddington Lock. Both the Dyers and the Vintners are Livery Companies of the City of London, and have their roots in Mediaeval ‘guilds’ dating back to the Middle Ages. Their Swan Masters are rowed in skiffs, along with the Queen’s Marker of the Swans and her Warden of the Swans, and catch and ring, where appropriate, the young swans.
Because the Mute Swan is so beautiful, it has been used as a ‘decorative’ wildfowl abroad – around 500 Mute Swans were imported into the USA between 1910-1912, and escapes from zoos and public parks were inevitable. Their fecundity is such that they have become a danger to many local ecosystems. Indeed, they have spread rapidly throughout the Chesapeake Bay area to the point where Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia either classify them as an invasive species or allow them to be hunted. There is also an ‘Atlantic Flyway Plan’, designed to prevent them competing with local over-wintering Tundra Swans, whose numbers are down by 40%.
The Mute Swan is, indeed, a very impressive bird, but can be held up as the 'poster child' for what happens when you introduce an exotic species into a different ecosystem.