Let the Mute Swans have a voice….

It’s that time of year again, our female swan is now resident on the nest, whilst her spouse vehemently guards her – (well, until meal time arrives, then as usual he appears at the backdoor – all this defending business makes for hungry work, don’t you know)…?


During the breeding season Floppy turns into the Devil Swan….ten times more grumpy than usual. To make a quick trip across the track to a neighbour’s house takes careful planning and negotiation; timing is of the essence – it’s best to wait until he’s not around at all, if possible…. Wheels are a particular bug-bear of his, he can’t resist having a go at any passing vehicle; I have seen him launch himself at full pelt in order to get at the milkman’s truck…. As for the poor lady who delivers the newspapers, with her pull along trolley….he just cant help himself….

Floppy showing his dislike of my car….

It’s common knowledge that breeding swans become more aggressive than usual; they are just doing their job, protecting their territory, nest and then once they arrive, their cygnets. There is no denying that a swan in full defensive mode is very imposing – one of Britain’s heaviest birds, at up to 15kg (33lbs) and with a wing span that can reach up to 2.4m (7.9ft), no wonder some people find them terrifying when confronted. Swans don’t attack just for the fun of it though (unless their name is Floppy)…. Generally, if you back away they will retreat, they may attempt to take a bite if you really overstep the mark…. A wing swipe can hurt but unless it’s to a young child or someone frail or elderly, the breaking of arms and legs is a misconception…. It was a myth put about by swan owners in the Middle Ages to stop poaching, when swans were considered a delicacy for the Royal dinner table….a myth that remained long after swan was taken off the menu. Out of the thousands of swans resident in Britain, to hear of a human being ferociously attacked by a swan is the rarest of occurrences….

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Photo credit: Mute Swan Mick E. Talbot via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/micks-wildlife-macros/5639133028/

The Crown claimed ownership on Britain’s mute swan population in the 12th Century, which is how the Queen now owns the majority of these majestic white birds….

It has been suggested that the mute swan, Cygnus Olor, was first introduced to Britain by the Romans, although remains have been found in East Anglia dating back to some 6,000 years ago. Naturally found in Africa, Asia, China, Europe and the Mediterranean area as well as the UK, the mute swan is adaptable to its surroundings. It can be found in coastal regions, on rivers and at estuaries, on ponds and lakes, grazing on flooded grasslands, in marshland and wetlands…. It has also been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and North America…. Its diet consists mainly of aquatic plants, snails and it will graze on grass. If semi-tame, it will happily feed on grain and lettuce. Although swans enjoy bread it is not advisable to throw it into the water for them as it does pollute and poison the water….

Thanks to conservation efforts here in the UK the swan is now at ‘least concern’ level on the conservation status. During the 1980s the population was in rapid decline, especially on the River Thames. Numbers had begun to fall in the 60s, the main culprit – lead fishing weights. Since the ban of lead weights in the 80s and with the help of a series of mild winters, the mute swan population has recovered and is now back to the levels seen in the 1950s. Swans have few natural predators; foxes will take cygnets (as our pair found out the hard way last year). The biggest dangers to swans are pollution, discarded fishing tackle, overhead power cables, harsh winters (ponds freezing over, lack of food) and mankind….unfortunately, often through acts of vandalism….

Mute swans are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 – the Act also covers eggs and nests. It is an offence to take or possess an egg and nests are protected whilst being built or used….

Occasionally swans get bad press. Most dog walkers are responsible, they keep their pets on leads when around swans, as they would around any wildlife or livestock…. However, you do hear of the occasional incident. Quite frankly, if a dog owner doesn’t have enough common- sense….well, I’d best not go there….

Sometimes a swan behaving badly makes the news; such as the apt named ‘Psycho Swan’ that terrorised members of a model boat club that regularly use a Suffolk lake…. In July 2016 the swan was responsible for the destruction of several model boats, much to the fury of the boats owners…. The ‘errant’ swan was the proud dad of four cygnets and was obviously taking his duties very seriously….no more needs to be said….

Floppy attending to his parental duties….

As the swan population increases the relationship between swans, farmers and those with fish interests can sometimes become stretched…. Natural food is at its scarcest between late Winter and early Spring – complaints from farmers about foraging swans have increased. Damage to crops, especially winter cereals and oilseed rape are rising, not just from being eaten but also from being trampled on and the ground being compacted. Some farmers plant decoy crops to try to tempt the plundering swans away from the main crop….others resort to bird scarers….

Another area where swans are falling out of favour is with the river management authorities. Studies have been conducted by DEFRA on rivers; for example the Rivers Itchen and Test (Hampshire) and the Kennet and Lower Avon (Wiltshire and Berkshire) and the adjacent agricultural land. Results showed that groups of swans only used part of the river, so damage remained localised. The plant community was the main sufferer, typically water crowfoot, a favourite food source for grazing swans; this effects conservation and angling value. Moving groups of swans away from more sensitive areas may help to manage the impact of their grazing; fencing off areas does not appear to work, suspended tape to deter the birds might help – but this is a pricey option. There is no conclusive answer – however, non-lethal methods do have to be found. At least as a result of the studies, authorities are beginning to understand the impacts on the chalk river eco-system and hopefully a practical, effective solution will be found….

British swans can perhaps thank their lucky stars that as current legislation stands, they are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act…. Which is more than can be said for their American cousins….

The mute swan first arrived in the States in the late 1800s – brought over from Europe to decorate the ornamental ponds and lakes of wealthy landowners. Quickly numbers increased and feral colonies formed….

The majority of American people see the mute swan as a creature of beauty….but there are those who view it as an invasive species that destroys the natural habitats of ducks, geese and America’s own trumpeter swan. They believe wetland eco-systems are put under threat and water is polluted with their faeces. They also cite the swan as dangerous, attacking children and the vulnerable….

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Trumpeter Swan SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent) via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brent_nashville/6825761442/

An incident that occurred in April 2012 did nothing to help the mute swan’s defence…. An angry swan was blamed for the death of a kayaker on a Chicago pond…. Anthony Hensley was working for a company that used swans to deter geese from its property. Hensley was using a kayak to check on the birds when a swan swam aggressively at him, causing him to tip out of the canoe. Being fully clothed, his sodden clothing made it difficult for him to swim to shore and the swan continued to attack him – tragically he drowned…. He was not wearing a life jacket….

Many states in the US see culling as the only way to manage the increasing mute swan population. Michigan plans to reduce its numbers from 15,000 to 2,000 by 2030; due to the belief damage is being caused to the wetland eco-system. Hunting groups are in support of this proposal; birds they choose to hunt, such as the ring-necked pheasant, could live in the areas vacated by the swans. People have been instructed not to take injured swans needing attention to wildlife centres and existing birds receiving care are expected to be handed over. This has caused an outcry from many people….

In Ohio, the killing of mute swans and the addling of their eggs (coating with oil to prevent them from hatching) has been done discreetly, to avoid a public outburst….

Perhaps one of the most emotive cases is that of New York State. In December 2013 the Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources (DEC), released a draft management plan which proposed the complete elimination of all 2,200 mute swans in New York State by 2025. Slaughter was to be carried out by either shooting or the rounding up and catching of groups to be gassed; nests and eggs were also to be destroyed….and all at the tax payer’s expense…. There was public outrage….

A revised management plan was then produced, proposing that numbers would be reduced from 2,200 to 800. Swans in parks would be allowed to live, only wild swans were to be eradicated, along with their eggs and nests. Landowners could apply for permits but would have to prevent their birds from being able to leave the private land. The State sought permission from private landowners and local county governments to kill swans on their land….

The DEC claimed to sympathise with and understand the public’s view and affection for swans but at the same time stated sentiment could not take precedence and also apportioned some of the blame to the rise in the swan population to people feeding the birds…. The DEC’s concerns included that the ‘invasive’ species was threatening the wetland eco-system and natural habitat of the native trumpeter swan, as the mute eats up to 8lbs of aquatic vegetation per day (the trumpeter eats up to 20lbs)….and that the mute swan poses a danger to children. One of its main high-lighted concerns was that of swans being a hazard to aviation – after the 2009 Hudson incident….

On the 15th of January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport, New York, bound for North Carolina. Three minutes after take off the Airbus A320 struck a migratory flock of Canada geese – sucking many of the birds into the ‘plane’s engines. To avoid disaster the pilots successfully ditched the aircraft into the Hudson River, off midtown Manhattan. All 155 people aboard were rescued with very little serious injury….the incident became known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. As a ‘precaution’, thousands of Canada geese living in the vicinity of New York’s airports were rounded up….and gassed. Bear in mind it was a migratory flock (proven by DNA analysis) that collided with the Airbus and not local geese….

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Photo credit: New York District Responds to U.S. Airways Flight 1549 Crash in the Hudson River USACE NY via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newyorkdistrict-usace/3748885467/

The revised plan for the management of the mute swan by the DEC still fell well short of public approval. In November 2016 a two-year moratorium was announced, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The DEC now has to demonstrate mute swans have caused actual damage to the environment and to other natural animal species with fully documented scientific evidence. Also, each area with swan populations is to have two public hearings; and any future proposed management plans must give priority to non-lethal techniques….

So, for now, New York City’s population of mute swans is currently benefitting from a two-year stay of execution…. at the end of this period, the eyes of the World will be upon them….

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Swan Roast, anyone…?

It’s that time of year again, our resident female swan is ‘feasting’ – building up her reserves ready for when she sits on the nest. She has become very persistent in asking for food and is incredibly grumpy when it is not forthcoming as and when she demands it…. She will often run at me and try to aim a peck or even a wing swipe, to show her disapproval at being made to wait. I’ve told her, on more than one occasion, that she ought to think herself lucky that this is the 21st Century or she may well have found herself on the dinner table….

Photo credit: ‘Nordic Museum’ Tuomo Lindfors via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL https://www.flickr.com/photos/tlindfors/29112721813/

In truth, swan would have been reserved for the tables of Royalty and high nobility. People, in Mediaeval times especially, ate what was available to them and within their social standing. Peasants would have had a diet consisting mainly of bread, porridge, eggs, cheese, nuts, berries and what ever fruit and vegetables they could grow themselves. Meat was, on the whole, seldom eaten, maybe the occasional rabbit, pork or on special occasions, goose or chicken. Hens were more useful as egg layers than to provide meat….

Upper classes enjoyed far more variety, not only due to their wealth but also to their passion for hunting with birds of prey. As well as rabbit and hare, it could in fact be said, if it had feathers it was to be considered ‘fair game’…. Anything from sparrow to peacock could appear on the menu….

Photo credit: ‘Sparrow’ Stewart Black via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/s2ublack/6906723808/

In this current age of so many bird lovers, (a trip to the local garden centre will show how big a market there is for wild bird feed), it is almost incomprehensible that our feathered friends once graced the tables of households across the land. Thrushes, finches, starlings were all eaten….the utmost prize would have been a young cuckoo that had just fledged. Heron, crane and crow were all considered delicacies and were favoured by Royalty. Stork, cormorant, bittern, puffin, bustard, gull, guillemot, lark and woodcock would all have been served as part of a meal….

Peacocks were domesticated and prized for their plumage, they were very much a status symbol. Although not particularly tasty and  quite tough, they were still served at banquets, in order to impress. To make the meat more palatable, the birds were likely to have been ‘hung’ for a day or two, by the neck with their feet weighted down. To serve, they would usually have been ‘re-dressed’. This means that once the bird had been cooked the plumage would have been replaced. This was the case with any impressive bird, male pheasants, swans, partridge and the like. In the instance of the peacock, the tail would have been fanned out in a glorious display….

Photo credit: ‘Peacock on display’ asgw via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aidanwojtas/12832649754/

Capons (castrated cockerels) and pheasants were purposely ‘fattened up’ – making them expensive, so were a luxury only for those who could afford them….

In England, (unlike Europe), duck was not popular for every day consumption, it was more likely to be eaten at feasts and on special occasions. Sometimes domestic ducks were kept but mainly wild ducks were hunted. The feathers were a bonus as these were prized for bedding….

Geese were also raised for their feathers, as well as for their meat and grease…. Most dwellings kept these noisy, hissy birds…. In England, goose was the traditional choice for Michaelmas and Whitsuntide, (both minor Christian festivals – not so widely observed in recent times); in Europe, goose was a popular choice at Christmas….

Because of the popularity of falconry, partridge, pheasant and quail were all common place. Pheasant, particularly, was highly valued because the meat was considered very flavoursome….

Photo credit: ‘Pheasant’ Richard Seely via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rdseely/3335188629/

Wood pigeons, rock doves and turtle doves were all domesticated for food in Mediaeval Europe, again being reserved mainly for the upper classes. They were very often roasted or made into pies….

Crane and heron were hunted by the aristocracy with their hawks and falcons. Both were popular for banquets. Sometimes, heron would be purposely bred. Swans had been domesticated for centuries. It was actually the young swan that was eaten, the meat of the adult being too tough. The young birds would have been removed from their parents at about three months old, to be raised and fattened up on barley, until they were somewhat obese. Swan apparently tastes more like duck than goose and it lacks the tough ‘beefiness’ of goose…. As soon as their white feathers appeared, at about seven months, the young swans were slaughtered….

In 1482, during the reign of Edward IV, it became legally defined that anyone caught killing a swan, without the permission of the Crown, could be imprisoned. This is how it came to be  that the Monarch owns the majority of the UK’s swans.  Occasionally, throughout history, the Throne has given ‘rights’ to other establishments to own swans, currently there are three of such establishments: The Dyers Livery Company, a historic guild of dyers dating back to the 12th Century, (but now more noted for its charitable work); The Vintners Livery Company, a historic guild of wine merchants, gaining its first charter in 1363; and the Ilchester family, the Ilchester Estate being where the Abbotsbury Swan Sanctuary is located…. Each establishment identifies its own birds, nowadays by ringing them but in days gone by, notches were carved into the swan’s beak…. Any un-ringed swan is automatically assumed as belonging to the Crown….

Photo credit: ‘Swannery at Abbotsbury’ Matt Knott via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewknott/6117206053/

The Queen is at liberty to give swans away to who ever she sees fit; for example, in 1967 she gave six as a gift to Ottowa, Canada, to celebrate its 100th anniversary and Canada’s ties with the UK.

Swans are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, it prohibits the intentional killing or harming of a swan. To do so could result in being arrested; in 2006 a man in Llandudno, Wales, was imprisoned for 2 months for the killing of a swan. Today the crime is referred to as a felony; the old term for the killing and eating of swans by unauthorised persons was ‘swanage’….

Technically, the Royals are still entitled to consume swan meat; as are the fellows of St. John’s College of Cambridge – however, it is unlikely that it will be appearing at any banquets any time soon….unlike those of yesteryear, where a swan would have been considered the jewel in the crown….

Photo credit: ‘Stockholm Nordiska’ Blake Handley via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/56705607@N00/14221111500/

Anyone fancy slivers of swan, poached in saffron and peaches? Or how about a Swan Roast….

Take: one woodcock, place inside a pigeon….place pigeon inside a partridge….partridge inside pheasant….inside a chicken….mallard….duck….goose and finally, a swan…. Roast for many hours, then re-dress in swan plumage : to really impress, at this stage gild the feathers with gold; serves approximately 30 people….

The correct term for stuffing animal into animal is ‘engastration’ – sounds appetising, doesn’t it?! It goes back to the Roman times, possibly even before….

The lavish displays of food at these banquets were very much part of the entertainment. Another great source of delight was the ‘live pie’. As children, we were all familiar with the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’; reputedly about such a pie….

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie;
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing;
Oh, wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King?
The King was in his counting house counting out his money;
The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey;
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose….

Photo credit: Image from page 13 of ‘Sing a song for sixpence’ (1890) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14750884564/

A pie would have been made by baking the pastry first without a filling; the crust would have been thick and would have risen to form a ‘pot’ shape. The top would have been cut off and live birds added and then the lid put back on…. The pie would then have been presented at the table and the lid removed, causing much merriment…. (It’s no wonder the maid in the rhyme had her nose pecked off….revenge!)….

Photo credit: Image from page 11 of ‘The real Mother Goose’ (1916) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14578146570/

Cooks became more competitive; all kinds of animals got added to pies….frogs, rabbits, dogs….even dwarfs, who would pop out and recite a poem! It was reported that a band of musicians actually emerged from one pie….

The first recipe books appeared in England during the 1500s, (before that time recipes would have passed on verbally from mother to daughter). One recipe that may have appeared in such a book has been adapted here for anyone wishing to try out a Mediaeval recipe for themselves….

Mediaeval Game Bird Stew

6 rashers of bacon, cut into large pieces
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 small pheasants or 4 quail or 1 chicken
Handful of coarsely cut mushrooms
Teaspoon of roasted, chopped hazelnuts
1 bottle of ale
3/4 cup of water
3 crumbled bay leaves
salt and pepper
6 slices of whole grain bread

In a heavy pan or flame proof casserole dish, fry the bacon with the garlic. Add the bird(s) and brown on all sides. Add nuts and mushrooms, cook for a few minutes and then add ale, water, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 2 hours or until tender and the meat falling from the bone.

Remove from heat, take the birds out of the liquid. As the juice left in the pan begins to cool, skim off any fat that forms with a slotted spoon. Remove the meat from the bones of the bird(s) and return meat to stew. Reheat gently, then serve on the slices of bread, ensuring it is saturated with juices….


Now, does anyone have any idea how big a pot I’d need to make swan soup…..?

Image from page 58 of ‘The ideal cook book’ (1902) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14765023645/