The return of the swans at Woods Mill near Henfield

Mute swan

Mute swan - Credit: Peter Brooks/Sussex Wildlife Trust

They may be one of our most elegant water birds, but mute swans have a nasty temper too.

I don't like swans. Never have done. Just seeing them swaggering around all hoity-toity annoys me, but two years ago I had good reason to take a personal dislike to a pair of them.

A couple of years ago was the 50th anniversary of the opening of Woods Mill, Sussex Wildlife Trust's nature reserve and headquarters near Henfield. We'd been getting the place all ship-shape ready to welcome visitors for celebrations throughout the summer, until I turned up for work one Monday to find a pair of swans had inconsiderately started building their huge woven nest right in the middle of the main path.

I thought I might try and heave the heap back into the pond but you can't disturb nesting birds during the breeding season, and I once read that the Queen legally owns all the swans in Britain. I certainly didn't want Her Majesty leaping out of the undergrowth and bopping me with her sceptre, so the nest was here to stay and our visitors would have to take a small diversion. Perhaps it's this royal association which gives swans their snooty attitude.

One morning I checked on the swans and found five whopping great eggs in their obstructive haystack nest. But the parents were elsewhere, arrogantly gliding about on the pond. Had they abandoned the nest? Surely the eggs would perish in the cold? I became uncharacteristically concerned. I was half tempted to hop on the eggs myself to keep them warm until I noticed the swans heading towards me, their wings half-raised behind their back (a posture called 'busking' which despite being the archetypal swan pose is actually an aggressive threat). Before I knew it they were upon me, hissing and raising their mighty wings. When you're being attacked by a swan you really appreciate what formidable creatures they are. Weighing up to 13kg, mute swans are one of the world's heaviest flying birds. The story that they can break your arm with their wings is nonsense but I didn't hang around, just in case.

After giving me some evil stares, Lord and Lady Muck settled back to incubating and guarding their future family. For another few weeks they sat on their throne in the middle of the path, being photographed by crowds of admiring visitors. Eventually the eggs hatched and there were seven swans swimming round the pond. It's obvious who rules the roost here at Woods Mill and the swans are back again this year, ready for another royal audience.

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