Who's the daddy?
Not all these beautiful little floofs turn into beautifully behaved swans. Female swans in the most part are chillaxed and calm whilst the males vary wildly according to time of year or just plain temperament!
For river and water users and specifically Stand Up Paddlers and Canoeists, now (April-June) is the time to be on swan alert. As the weather turns warm and nature goes into overdrive, increasing numbers of us are taking to the water in springtime for our first paddles around the UK inland and coastal waters. In Essex, we have many beautiful waterways currently clear of holidaymakers whilst nature is bursting with beauty, breeding and babies around us. At Frangipani SUP predominately use the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, a peaceful and tranquil river running from Chelmsford to the Blackwater Estuary at Heybridge Basin.
The greatest threat right now to a gentle and relaxing tour on a paddleboard is an aggressive male swan near his nest. The male is on high alert during nesting and while the cygnets are young. He will defend his territory which can extend from the nest several hundred yards and both banks. Indeed people have had swans chase SUPs, canoes or even barges for long distances either flying and landing near, or swimming after. The male which can be identified by a larger lump above his bill will generally swim towards and approach with feathers ruffled, neck back and sometimes hissing.
Recently near Ulting Church, just upstream of Hoe Mill Lock, we have had a particularly aggressive swan, known to all on our SUP Riders tours as 'Psycho Swan' who has developed a strategy of swimming alongside looking for weak spots in our line-up and then flying at our group from behind (the paddler’s blind spot) with wings outstretched and putting his webbed feet on the back of people’s SUP boards. This has caused more than one involuntary and unpleasant dismount with the swan then landing on the surfacing paddler.
I contacted the Essex Wildlife Trust who put me on to a swan expert. Her opinion was that as a wild animal the swan had every right to be there and defend his territory, which I agreed with. She advised us to avoid that part of the river and walk round (this is not really practical.) I also contacted the Abbotsbury Swannery where the Swanherd (head swan wrangler) cheerfully told me that swans do defend their territory vigorously and will strike a person hard and repeatedly using their wings, usually using their bone near the 'wing elbow.'
The only other solution suggested was that if the swan was a serial offender we could contact Natural England and request a relocation and new identity for the swan. (Bit Sopranos!) However, swan experts say that it is highly likely that a new pair will only move in the next breeding season and to be honest I think this sounds like an extreme measure, especially given that swans can live and breed for twelve years on average and it is their home afterall! The good news is that this aggressive behaviour should cease from late June when they moult and shed old feathers in abundance, becoming scruffy and as meek and mild as lambs!
Back on the Chelmer, we have devised a few tactics to minimise the battles, some of which may work depending on the swan and which side of the nest he woke up on. When paddling as a group, we paddle close together in line, nose to tail, (or drafting as it is called in racing) and paddle quietly, steadily and deliberately past on the opposite side to the bank with the nest in it. We position more nervous paddlers in the middle and the more confident on flanks or to the rear, where if necessary we will splash the swan to counter an aggressive attack ('rear gunner').
We have also tried swan food and a pet corrector (an aerosol that hisses audibly, like the ones that put-off dogs from barking at visitors) to distract the swans from their aggressive attacks.
The most important thing is that we all live together happily on the beautiful waterways and that we are patient with the swans as they go about their important nesting and family rearing activities. They are a beautiful and treasured part of our watery landscape. Bring on the end of June!
Mike Frangipani SUP