A swan family! How opportune that KL Caley has picked this picture for the writephoto this week. It enables me to give a little taste of my holiday in the form of a non-fiction piece for a change. It’s just under 500 words.
Abbotsbury Swannery: 150 swan families each year
They are the only wild Mute Swans in England not owned by the Queen. I learned this fact many many moons ago, when I first visited the Chesil coast of Dorset, on a riding holiday in the 1960s.
Chesil Beach is a deposited shingle beach that runs for 18 miles along the southern coast of England, from Portland to West Bay. Then it gives way to the Jurassic Coast from there to the Exe Estuary in Devon.
And behind Chesil Beach, the Fleet lagoon runs for 8 miles. At the western end is Abbotsbury.
The abbots of Abbotsbury were farming and using the land around the lagoon in the eleventh century. Raising swans for the table was not only good for their digestion, but for their existence, as the rich and famous of the time were partial to a roast swan every now and then. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539, he sold the abbot’s lands and everything on them, including the swans, to Sir Guy Strangways, an ancestor of the current owners, who continued with the swannery.
The swannery is now a refuge rather than a production centre. However, the productivity of this small area is amazing.
The swans have grown up living in close proximity with each other, and with plentiful supplies of food and fresh water. This goes against the main requirements of a wild swan’s territory – enough to feed a growing family. That usually leads to relatively widely spaced nesting areas.
Swan nests line the sides of the paths. They pay little attention to the passersby, although some of the cobs (males) are definitely patrolling their personal perimeters! The pens sit on their nests, incubating the eggs (normally six), which don’t start developing until the last is in the nest. The staff check each nest daily, to record progress and check whether any of the eggs are ‘peeping’ which means the noise made by the cygnet approximately 24 hours before it starts breaking out of its shell. Usually all the cygnets emerge on the same day.
As with the #writephoto, there is hardly a cuter thing than a swan family, whether in the nest or on the water. Abbotsbury expect over 150 pairs to breed successfully each year, out of a total of over 500 swans on the site. With few predators able to get close enough for an opportune breakfast, the success rate of fledging is high. But they are free to leave, if they wish to try their luck in the wild. Most stay, though.
As well as the swans, the reserve hosts plenty of reedbed, water, and scrubland birds. It’s well laid out, with two trails and plenty of information boards, and is well worth a visit at any time (open March to October). But particularly in May and June – cygnet season!
© J M Pett 2022