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Norwich Bulletin - 9/21/2008

The Swan Song

Last month I had the privilege of being hired to judge a cat show in England. It was a great experience and while I was there I decided to look into what the United Kingdom does with regards to rescue. One of the most interesting places I learned about while there is The Swan Sanctuary.

Yes, while we have people here in the United States actually trying to get rid of the swans, the UK is our complete opposite. It is a criminal offense in the UK to harm a swan in any way and prosecutions are becoming more prevalent. It is also an offense to move the location of a nesting swan, even if the location is inconvenient to the landowner.

The official site of the British Monarchy (www.royal.gov.uk) explains Swan Upping, an annual census of the swan population on stretches of the River Thames in certain counties, which takes place during the third year of July each year. The Queen actually owns all the mute swans in the UK. However, the Royal Family does not financially sponsor the protection of the swans in any way, which somehow seems wrong.

Dorothy Beeson, the founder of the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, England, has been the recipient of the British Empire Medal for her work in swan welfare. Originally, her swan rescue started out in her own backyard in the early 1980’s, but she soon needed more room to continue her work. After selling her house, she was able to finance the first national swan sanctuary on a two acre site in Egham, Surrey.

She and her partner Steve, their ten cats, two dogs, four lovebirds and a parrot named Charlie all lived in a caravan on this land. It was hard going at first and there were a lot of setbacks, shattered hopes and dreams and times when it seemed they would never succeed, but in 2005, a new site was found in Shepperton and the dream started to unfold. It has allowed the sanctuary to operate on a much larger scale and finally open to the public.

The Swan Sanctuary is on a twenty four hour alert, 365 days a year. When a distress call comes in, the local rescue squad is on its way within minutes. The injured bird may be treated on the spot or rushed to intensive care at the Sanctuary. The bird is then examined and x-rayed, and if necessary will go into the only operating theatre made for swans with everything needed for surgery immediately available. Over 3,000 swans and thousands of other waterbirds are currently being treated every year!

What are the dangers that threaten the Swan? Well the bird actually has few natural enemies. Unfortunately there are lots of unnatural threats – thousands of swans are attacked, poisoned, shot and injured every year despite their protected status in the UK. There are other dangers that exist for these birds where people are not directly trying to hurt the swan itself.

For instance, discarded fish hooks are one of the most common causes of injury to a swan, as are power lines, especially those that are near to water. The swans often cannot see them and a whole flock can crash into them. Pollution is probably the biggest threat, whether industrial or domestic. Oil spills are deadly - and then there are the completely mindless attacks of people, just because they can. On the natural side, there are foxes and mink, as well as uncontrolled dogs that all threaten the safety of the Swan.

Once a bird regains its fitness, the swan will then be transferred to an outdoor rehabilitation pen. Each swan is placed among other swans that were found closest to its own home territory. After a full recovery, the swan gets returned to its natural habitat. If a bird is severely disabled and can no longer defend its own territory, the Sanctuary will find a “protected’ water where there is someone to always be willing to lend a hand to the bird.

Swans are very interesting creatures and they are not mean, as many articles in the US may infer. Swans mate for life and if a mate is lost, the survivor will go through a grieving process much like we humans do. Then it will either stay where it is alone and on its own or start a new life in a new place and perhaps, eventually, a new mate.

Both males and females are very dedicated to their cygnets. If one or the other is killed, the cygnets will be raised by the survivor, be it the male or the female. Usually there are about ten eggs that will hatch and depending on the location of the nest, it is not uncommon for all or none of the cygnets to survive.

Despite rumor, swans are not an aggressive bird – they are a defensive bird. The only time they will show aggression is when protecting their nest. Swans do not have teeth, but they do hiss and peck which can cause some discomfort if the skin gets pinched.

Perhaps we should take a lesson from the UK and stop trying to destroy this beautiful bird and instead, take some steps in preserving them.

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