A day or two after Phil and I set off on our first narrowboat adventure, we were woken by the sound of tapping on the side of our boat. Leaping out of bed to see what it was, I opened the hatch and found a small gathering of swans waiting expectantly for their breakfast. New to this life on the waterways and very ignorant about wild fowl, I dished out some crusts of bread and, of course, the swans then wouldn’t leave us alone.
From that day onwards, observing swans and their behaviour became a mild obsession of mine. This really took hold when we were moored up in Farndon near Newark on the River Trent and I was able to observe a community of about 10 or so swans performing morning ablutions – their long necks contorting and stretching out in any direction as they washed and groomed their plumage. Later, when dusk was upon us, they tucked themselves up, lying completely still with their heads under their wings floating like poached eggs on the surface of the water.
As our journey progressed, my knowledge of swans developed. I found out that they are one of the heaviest flying birds in the UK with Cobs (male) usually weighing in at about 11kg (24lb) and Pens (females) about 9kg (20lb). Their wingspan can be as much as 2.5 metres (8ft) wide. I remember the first time I saw a couple of swans getting ready to take to the air. They flapped their wings for ages before they had enough momentum to fly their heavy bodies up into the sky. A jumbo jet taking off came to mind!
Wild mute swans are naturally underwater foragers and usually feed on aquatic plants such as pondweed, stonewort and wigeon grass as well as insects, tadpoles and crustaceans. I frequently saw the swans ‘upending’ with their heads and necks submerged searching for food in the water. When Phil and I arrived in Leicester and moored up at Castle Gardens, we looked across to the other side of the river and were astounded to see a very large number of swans eagerly gathered around children and their parents or grandparents throwing out bread to them. Although the children were having a fine time, we wondered whether it was good for swans to be eating so much bread. Wouldn’t it make them lazy? Surely it didn’t contain all the nutrients they needed? Although there has been a campaign called ‘Ban the Bread’ which is against people feeding bread to swans and other wildlife, apparently, as long as the bread is not mouldy, there is no scientific evidence to say that bread is bad for swans.
The official statement on bread from David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker is that ‘Whilst bread may not be the best dietary option for swans compared to their natural food such as river weed, it has become a very important source of energy for them, supplementing their normal diet and helping them to survive the cold winter months when vegetation is scarce’.
It was May and we had just moored up in Crick ready for the boat show (we had volunteered to help so had been given a reserved mooring which was lovely!). I was sitting in the bow with my feet up and a glass of wine in my hand, enjoying the sight of the various ‘gangs’ of baby waterfowl swimming alongside their parents. A man on the boat next to ours was busy sorting out his ropes when he nodded over at the swans with their cygnets and said ‘Them there, they all belong to ‘er Majesty you know’.
Although, I had a vague sense of already knowing this, his comment prompted me to find out more.
For a long time, people believed that mute swans were introduced to this country by Richard 1st. However, ornithologists have discovered evidence of the presence of mute swans in Britain going back 10,000 years so they are now considered to be native to this country.
Nevertheless, the intriguing relationship between swans and the Royal Family dates back a long way. It was in the 12th Century when, in order to ensure there was an adequate supply of swan meat for feasts, the Crown began counting and checking the health of cygnets on particular stretches of the River Thames. This was called ‘Swan Upping’ and is a tradition that continues to this day, taking place every July under the supervision of the Royal Swan Marker.
By about 1360, The Crown had an official swan ‘herd’. At that time, wealthy people could buy the right to own, sell and eat swans but they had to purchase a swan ‘mark’ from the King which they then branded into each of their swans’ beaks.
It was King Edward 7th’s wife, Queen Alexandra, who put a stop to the marking of swans in this way and that is when The Crown took ownership of any unmarked birds. Today, there are 2 livery companies (Vitners and Dyers) who are still given rights of ownership but who mark their swans using rings.
Bizarrely, other than the Royal Family, the only people in this country allowed to eat swans are the Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge and then only on 25th June.
In 1592, Henry eighth introduced a law to protect swans and it is still an offence to steal or kill a wild unmarked swan or to interfere with nesting swans. People can and have been prosecuted as recently as 2017.
Living alongside these elegant and majestic birds and being able to observe their behaviour on a day to day basis for just over 2 years was a real privilege. We saw them everywhere we went. There is so much more I could say.........
Eventually Phil said that my obsession with swans was becoming unhealthy and that I was in danger of becoming ‘fatally dull’. This reached its peak when two of our friends, came to visit and politely sat through a showing of my complete archive of swan photos. One of them actually fell into a coma like slumber and that seemed to confirm it. I was literally in danger of boring our friends to death!