Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World: Swan Song

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of
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Swan Song

What do overhead power lines, air rifles, lead pellets, water pollution, sticks and stones, fishing hooks/lines, vandalism, foxes, dogs and mink have in common? Unfortunately they are all hazards faced by those beautiful, stately white birds - the 'stately galleons' known to us as swans.

Unfortunately, it seems that there is yet another hazard to add to that list: the killing of swans for food. For some years there have been rumours that the birds were being killed for food, but it has now been confirmed that this is the case. These beautiful birds are going missing in large numbers in some areas of the country, and skeletons are being found littering river banks etc. Swans and other wildlife are becoming fair game in this country for people who are of no fixed abode and appear to have no knowledge or respect for the laws of this country.

Swans are protected in the UK. They were given statutory protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the eggs and nests are also protected. It is an offence to harm, take or kill a wild swan, take or even possess an egg of a wild mute swan or destroy nests.

The ceremony of 'Swan Upping' originated in the 12th Century when all unmarked swans were regarded as the property of the Crown, to ensure a plentiful supply for banquets! How things change. As recently as 1998 killing one of the Queen's swans was treason - but in modern times it is usually punished by jail sentences or heavy fines - assuming the culprit can be caught!

The commonest swan is the Mute swan (Cygnus olor), resident all year round and one of the biggest and heaviest birds in the UK. They make very little noise in flight compared with other species, hence the 'mute'.

Though it has long been said that many species of swans pair for life, it is known that they may well have four partners in a lifetime, often due to the death of one partner. Recently Bewick’s swans (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) caused something of a sensation when a pair of Bewicks arrived at the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT) at Slimbridge, each with a new partner. It is only the second time in forty years that such an event has been recorded!

Bewick’s are the rarest of the three species seen in the UK, and also the smallest, and they spend summers in northern Russia. The third is the Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) mainly a winter visitor which breeds mostly in Iceland.

This week there is much concern over Whooper swan Y6K, a bird subject to satellite tracking by the WWT. It was being tracked on its way back to Iceland. At 10.46am on Friday 16th April it was heading for the massed cloud of ash erupting from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. It will be two days before the researchers get another reading and can tell whether it survived. Volcanic eruptions cause huge problems for many waterfowl returning to Iceland.

Of course, like many species of wildlife, swans are not always popular. They have a reputation for attacking humans but this is usually more threat than action, particularly if they have a nest, eggs, or cygnets nearby. Oh, and if they are prevented from dining on a favourite food they can get quite nasty too!

For example, the birds are partial to watercress, and on a Hampshire farm there are ample supplies to meet their demands. Fifty tonnes of the stuff are eaten by the birds each year. Unfortunately for the farmer it can cost about £250,000 per annum, not a small sum, but they know they are a protected species and there is little the farmers can do. In Cambridge, on the River Cam, a nesting swan took exception to rowers and regularly attacked them, even flying after them.

In January of this year the WWT launched their Swan Count, which has taken place every five years since 1990 - this being the biggest swan count ever. The Bewick's and Whoopers are both at risk from all the hazards previously mentioned, but populations of Bewick's have dropped by a third while the Whoopers appear to be increasing.

For more information about our swans take a look at The Swan Sanctuary for answers to all your questions, and you can follow the Super Whooper satellite tracking of the birds at http://www.wwt.org.uk/whooper

The Icelandic volcano has a great deal to answer for, so I wish wildlife and humans good luck and a safe arrival if caught up in the chaos.

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