Swan Lake lives up to its name

Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve in Derbyshire is known to the locals as Swan Lake, and with good reason. Although both a Canada goose and a mute swan appear on its signage, there’s no question which is the top bird…and it’s not the goose! When we were last here the star attraction was a pair of mandarin ducks. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen this time, but mute swans were out and about in large numbers.

Families were also out in force, many clutching loaves of sliced bread to share with their feathered friends. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Bread is not appropriate food for waterfowl and is definitely not recommended for swans (although the local brown rat population loves it!) On the other hand, it’s great to see people getting up close and personal with swans, and introducing their children to these magnificent creatures.

There are around 6,000 breeding pairs of mute swans in the UK, and numbers rise to around 70,000 individuals in the winter when migrants arrive from the continent in search of better weather. They are impressive birds. With a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (nearly 8 feet) and weighing in at almost 12 kilos (26 pounds) they are the largest of the UK’s wildfowl, a formidable presence on rivers, lakes and ponds all over the country. But they come with a health warning: as a kid I was often on the receiving end of the dire predictions about what they would do to me given half a chance: don’t get too close, worried adults would caution, that swan’ll break your arm in an instant.

Of course I know now that this was a gross exaggeration, and a terrible slur on a wonderful bird. Sometimes they’d hiss a bit if I got too close to a nest of chicks, but the swans I encountered never resorted to violence. For the most part they seemed like improbable, gentle giants and I was a little bit in awe of them. I am still, I guess, and look forward to revisiting Swan Lake in a few weeks time when some newly hatched cygnets should be on show.

Footnote on the quirky history of English swans (aka Swan Upping)

In medieval England swans were a highly prized menu item at banquets hosted by the nobility, and as such were a valued status symbol for those able to serve them up. Reflecting this cherished position, every mute swan in England was deemed to be the property of a major local landowner, each of whom gave the swans in their ownership a unique pattern of marks on the beak.

Beginning in the 12th century, an annual Swan-Upping exercise was carried out to manage the ownership of wild, free-flying birds. Adult mute swans and their new cygnets would be captured. The adults’ beaks would be examined for marks of ownership, and their cygnets given similar marks.  Any unmarked adult swans would be claimed by the Crown.

Of course the monarch, as chief amongst the nobles, had a particular interest in the management of mute swans. This interest is illustrated by the royal Christmas festivities of 1251, when King Henry III served up 125 birds (around 1 ton, or 1,000 kilos, of swan flesh) to his cronies. To ensure a steady and sufficient supply of this avian delicacy the Crown claimed ownership of mute swans on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries.

By the 15th century the monarch was sharing ownership of swans on ‘his’ stretch of the Thames with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies, two London-based medieval trade organisations. During the Swan Upping ceremony the Worshipful Company of Dyers would mark their swans with a nick on one side of the beak, with the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The swans belonging to the Crown were unmarked. 

Although swans are now protected by law and eating them is strictly forbidden, the quaint and archaic ritual of Swan Upping has been reinvented to help support the conservation of swans. This fascinating YouTube video, featuring Her Majesty the Queen’s very own official Swan Marker, explains more. You just couldn’t make it up!

16 comments

  1. Yeah, Another Blogger · April 14

    Coincidentally, I’m reading a novel (Devotion, by Howard Norman) that features swans in the storylines. I think they have a metaphorical meaning for the story, but I can’t figure out what it is!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 14

      I think swans are often used to symbolise love, fidelity (they reputedly mate for life) and purity (which works only if you accept that white is emblematic of righteous virtue, a notion that feels inappropriate these days). Over here we also use them as a metaphor for hidden effort, pointing out that swans look graceful and serene swimming on a lake or river, but beneath the surface they’re paddling like crazy. Don’t know if any of this works in the context of your novel?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The June Journal · April 15

    Interesting! The video is fun to watch also😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 16

      Glad you liked the video, We British are a bit eccentric, I think 🙂.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The June Journal · April 17

        I like British novels, TV shows and movies. It impressed me that one of my daughter’s high school biology textbook had a picture of David Suchet as detective Hercule Poirot, I forgot what his picture referring, maybe “the little grey cells” 😄

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 17

        Fascinating that Poirot has made it into US high school textbooks; I wonder what Agatha Christie would have made of that? Several actors have played Poirot over the years, but none compare with David Suchet. His interpretation of the character is spot on, absolutely superb. I guess he thought very carefully about how to play the role, putting his “little grey cells” to good use 🙂.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. tanjabrittonwriter · April 16

    Who doesn’t love swans? I was never told horror stories about them. Rather, I grew up with “The Ugly Duckling,” which instilled in me a sense of awe, long before I became a birder.
    The history and video of Swan Upping are extraordinary indeed. Where else but in the UK? 🙂
    And please let Mrs. P know that I adore her photos, especially the last one (assuming that she is still the one who supplies you with the images that accompany your writing). 🦢

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 16

      Yes, the Ugly Duckling was part of my childhood too, but adults made the point of saying that it was just a silly fairy story and in the real world a swan would break your arm in the blink of an eye! I wonder if this fixation with swans breaking the arms of innocent bystanders is a purely British obsession? We are, after all, a somewhat strange nation, as the Swan Upping ceremony clearly demonstrates 🙂!

      Mrs P sends a big ‘thank you’ for your kind words about her photos. She’s always trying to capture interesting reflections when photographing near water, so she was particularly proud of the final image that I used to illustrate this post.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ann Mackay · April 17

        That’s a beautiful image – the reflection makes it special. The bit about swans being able to break your arm was trotted out to me as a kid too – made me over-cautious at first when we came across all the swans on the river here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 17

        I’ve passed on your feedback to my staff photographer, Mrs P, who was “reet chuffed” with what you wrote! Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · April 18

        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · April 20

        It would be interesting to trace the origins of some of these persistent, if false, myths. Some of them are harmless, but others not so much, as they give animals (e.g. owls) a bad reputation and justifies their destruction. 😦

        It must be fun for you and Mrs P to work together to complement one another’s words and images.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · April 21

        Yes, it’s a partnership that works well, provides an extra outlet for Mrs P’s photos as well as much-needed images to support my scribblings! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Candice · April 19

    This was an interesting bit of information. Who knew this tradition of swan spotting has been going on for centuries!

    Liked by 1 person

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