Roast a swan: save a fish

Matthew Chatfield
Latest posts by Matthew Chatfield (see all)

The Ranger doesn’t take his kids to feed the birds in the park – despite being responsible for numerous sites where such practices are common. He doesn’t feed them himself, either. There’s something slightly sad about these magnificent birds, which in other countries might be winging their way on some great migratory voyage, but here are found squabbling with rats over a sodden Kingsmill wrapper in a filthy pea-green concrete-rimmed pond. Waterfowl, including swans, don’t need to be fed, they can find their own food. However, if they are regularly fed they soon forget how to look after themselves and become domesticated. They also breed more and end up with a much larger population than the pond they live on can naturally support. Result – overcrowding, rats, other wildlife is eliminated, the water is polluted by droppings. It goes green and smelly, people complain, the Ranger has to do something, but can’t stop people feeding the birds because they love to do so.

Swans at Appley Park, Ryde

Swans on a boating lake managed by The Ranger

So The Ranger is pleased to learn that he’s not alone in this concern (apart from all those links above). The Independent reports on what it calls ‘A plague of swans’:

Since 1990 the population of mute swans has increased by a quarter, with more than 30,000 of the birds living in England. The numbers have grown so rapidly that flocks of up to 50 juveniles are congregating in rivers where they feed avidly, stripping them of vegetation and driving out other river birds. The swans’ burgeoning numbers are now threatening fish, birds and other animals that rely on the vegetation to survive. They are also depriving fish of their camouflage, making them more vulnerable to predators such as herons and kingfishers. …Swans survival rates have been helped not only by unusually mild weather, but also by the phasing out of lead in fishing tackle and in gunshot which poisoned swans in the past.

The article goes on rather unsubtly to give a nice recipe for cooking and eating swans. Apparently, the Independent has also gamely got government ministers to comment on this, albeit unattributably:

“There are more and more swans and they are really threatening biodiversity. We can’t do anything because they are heavily protected,” said one ministerial source.

The Ranger says that that’s a load of swans-droppings. The Wildlife & Countryside Act gives scope for the government to licence activities to control wild birds which are a nuisance, or posing a threat to public health, or all sorts of things. If the Government wanted to ‘control’ swans they would have no difficulty, legally, in doing so. What is a far, far more serious problem is the public perception of the big birds. We love them, and we enjoy feeding them. Rounding them all up and sending them to Romania or wherever is just not going to wash. Let’s not even mention culling. Luckily, it seems that Natural England is on the job, and they are going to be looking into the matter in 2007.

“Natural England will be working with river keepers from January to monitor the whole river system to unravel the possible impact on insects, plants and animals that rely on the river for survival,” said a spokeswoman.

That’s interesting – perhaps they really will be able to solve it. But they’ll need to think a bit wider than that. It will be a good test of the new, people-centric organisation because the solutions to the problems of swan populations are not likely to be entirely ecological – the problems with swan populations are mainly to do with people. To do anything about it, even if the cause is perfectly well-understood, will require an awful lot of work to convince people of the merits of the course of action proposed. So let’s see if Natural England can come up with a solution to the Gordian knot that is people feeding waterfowl, which park-keepers and rangers up and down the country have been wrestling with for years. If they do, The Ranger will be delighted to implement it!

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

2 thoughts on “Roast a swan: save a fish

  • 2nd October, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Feeding birds may have other unintended consequences.
    Scotts Miracle-Gro (the name’s a clue to which country they’re in) have been found guilty of putting insecticides which also harmed birds into – guess which product? – bird food.
    But until people can get as big a kick from practical conservation work, or putting fruiting shrubs in their gardens, as they get from turning cheap white bread into litter, I don’t suppose things will change.
    Education, education, education?

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    I rather thought the The queen owned all the swans in Britain & only she could eat them. This may be an urban myth, in which case feel free to disolusion me. But if its right surely a quick letter to Lizzie from the ranger could sort ths.

    Failing that, take a small child, surround it with bread & watch the swans maul it. Trust me, they will never want to feed the ducks again.


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