The history of mute swans in Cheshire
- Credit: not Archant
Throughout most of England, mute swans have been a common sight for centuries, but in Cheshire their recent population history has been cause for concern, writes wildlife photographer Mick Taylor
The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is a member of the waterfowl family known as Anatidae. It’s a large bird that resides near water and is native to much of Europe. During the 12th century the crown claimed ownership of all swans found in England and Wales, basically to prevent so called commoners from killing and eating what was then one of the royal family’s favourite banqueting dishes! Fortunately, they’re no longer eaten nowadays, and it’s a criminal offence to cause them any harm.
Both the male and female have a truly majestic appearance, especially when gliding effortlessly on water. Each has a long-necked body and wings that are totally white; the exception being a distinctive black knob above an orange beak, which in the case of the larger male is more pronounced than the female’s. Pondweed and other submerged plants form their main diet, but they also eat grass when on land.
Throughout most of England mute swans have been a common sight for centuries, but in Cheshire their fairly recent population history has bucked this trend somewhat. Amazingly, in 1985 a special swan census performed in the county confirmed that only 15 breeding pairs resided in the region. In comparison many other counties sustained pairs equivalent to ten times - or more, than those found in Cheshire. Not surprisingly, the low numbers recorded were very alarming to the county’s ornithologists and wildlife enthusiasts, begging the question, why was Cheshire’s mute swan population so small?
Following an investigation the reason was diagnosed as lead poisoning. Essentially, swans swallow gravel on purpose to help digest their food. Unfortunately a proportion of lead weights used by anglers was also among gravel eaten by the birds, resulting in many deaths. The solution to the problem however, was relatively simple. Anglers started using non-toxic weights, and subsequent legislation banning the use of lead was introduced on 1 January 1987. These actions gradually enabled Cheshire’s swan population to recover.
In August 1988 a study group primarily designed to monitor the swan’s recovery in this county, was founded by Dennis Elphick. It became known as the Cheshire Swan Study Group (CSSG), and still operates today. It’s currently headed by David Cookson, who took over the group’s leadership in 1992. Other activities performed by the CSSG include the actual ringing of swans, and their cygnets.
The very name ‘mute’ suggests they’re completely silent. Indeed, most of the time they’re far less vocal than other swan species, but they make a hissing noise when angered, and sometimes produce a snorting sound. Mute swans are among the UK’s largest birds; males can measure up to 1.7m in length and have a wingspan in excess of 2m, which oddly enough produces a vibrant resonant sound when in flight.
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Around four years of age, males and females seek out mates and pair up, usually for life. Their courtship involves a methodical dance on water and can occur from spring through summer. During the breeding season 5-8 eggs are laid in a large nest, that’s constructed over a 2-3 week period. The young - called cygnets, hatch between May and July. They’re born with a silver grey plumage which turns white when they become adults. Shortly after birth they can sometimes be seen taking refuge on mum’s back; a wonderful sight if you’re lucky enough to experience it. Sadly - as is often the case in nature, a number of cygnets can be lost to predators such as grey herons or crows, or even large pike. Hence when raising their young, it’s no surprise that parents can be particularly aggressive if they sense threats to their offspring.
If while out and about near water, you spot a swan paddling fairly quickly with its folded wings raised to make it appear bigger, and head perhaps hunched into the neck, then chances are it’s about to charge at an intruder. Stories of swans being capable of breaking a person’s arm are in the main a myth. In very exceptional circumstances, if a fully extended wing were to strike the arm of an elderly person or a child, at speed, then theoretically it may be possible, but the fact is they’re defensive birds and their aggression is mainly for show to ward off intrusion. However, if you ever come across an occupied nest the best advice is always to stay well away from it.
After six months of being cared for by mum and dad, it becomes time for cygnets to fend for themselves. If necessary parents will literally chase them away, often in a very aggressive manner. Most young swans start their adult life by joining a flock where they stay until reaching full maturity.
To find out more about the CSSG’s work simply visit their website at; cheshireswanstudygroup.wordpress.com