by Andy Butcher, the Swan Man
The Right Food
Too often this year I have had to ask people not to feed bread to the ducks and swans. Once someone arrived with three loaves of cheap white bread – that would have been disastrous. Although bread was traditionally fed to ducks and swans, for many years now it has been accepted that it has no food value for them and can potentially cause health problems, particularly in young birds. What I feed is Floating Swan and Duck Food and I have found it to be the best thing. It is a mixture of natural grains and seeds in a floating pellet form. Nothing gets wasted and nothing gets into the lake that should not be there. Other foods are recommended like peas, lettuce and grains but the problem is that none of these float. As a result they can have a detrimental effect on the lake and may attract vermin.
My general advice to anyone thinking of casually feeding the swans and ducks is…Don’t! Just enjoy looking at them. There is plenty of natural food around for our wild birds. I do it because they want me to and I know how much they need and when to stop. It also enables me to check on their health. When they finish with me I want them to feed naturally from the lake.
Currently there are huge concerns about Avian Flu all over the UK and beyond. All I can do is try to keep our birds as healthy as possible
And then there were 8 then 12 then 27
Over time the Glencoyne Bay team increased to 12. The new swans were quite happy to come near me and before long, all became friends too. All except a little female, I called Ingrid… She seemed unhappy with how comfortable the others were with me and tried to lure some of them away…then she also joined in. When 4 paddled away and left her, much to my surprise, Ingrid jumped on the paddleboard beside me. She did this every day until disappearing again. Another significant character I called Vic also disappeared, there is always a boss and Vic was definitely boss. He could be quite aggressive with the others but never with me.
In November 2021 we had two storms that caused some damage to trees around the Lake and my swans all disappeared. I presumed they had found shelter. What followed was a period of calm which enabled me to paddleboard round the Lake to see if I could find them. I found some but they seemed happy enough without me. At that point I thought this was the end of the story. I carried on with my early morning litter picking and paddleboarding, then after four days a lone swan came in to see me…followed by another 17! This really took me by surprise, as it included cygnets I had never seen before. Some bonded with me straight away, others were a little nervous at first but before long, all were taking from my hand.
In the months that followed, others came along and, to my surprise, after months of being away, Ingrid came back and so did Vic. I recognised them straight away. Ingrid jumped on the paddleboard as before and during the Summer of 2022, she has become the star of the group, quite unique in character.
For much of the Summer of 2022 I have had 27 swans with me. In June/July/August they go through the moult when they renew all their feathers. At first it’s quite a shock to see the big flight feathers go and I have a large collection of them at home. Each swan has around 25,000 feathers so inevitably you will see smaller feathers around the lake. They do disappear in time. During the moult the swans are unable to fly and so have to paddle in to see me and they also eat more as they need extra energy to rebuild those feathers, more so I’ve found than in the winter. With the weather being fine and dry a lot of the time, it has sometimes been a very difficult Summer. The area where we meet has become increasingly popular and sadly some of our visitors do not respect the area or the wildlife. At times I’ve collected several bin bags of rubbish each day and there is never nothing. Particularly trying has been the obsession with lighting fires and barbecues. This leaves a terrible mess and often I’ve found them still smouldering with the obvious dangers to the land and the birds and animals who live here. Why people need to bring so much food for a day trip is beyond me and if they have to cook, then a small camping stove is clean and much more efficient.
At the time of writing this update, we are now into Autumn and visitor numbers have returned to normal. I do meet some lovely people, interested in the swans, and I am always pleased to share the story with them and answer questions. Now they are flying again, the swans sometimes move away into small groups or pairs when they leave me. At other times they wait for me first thing in the morning. Some still paddle in but it’s a real thrill to see them fly in. Ingrid and Vic disappeared again for a while as did some of the others but a regular 16 or so remained. The good thing about this is it shows they are not relying on me and I regard what I feed as a supplement to their natural diet. They choose whether they want it or not and at all times I want them to remain wild and free. Ingrid and Vic returned and with them have arrived 4 beautiful cygnets. They were immediately comfortable with me and currently I can have up to 29 coming in to see me.
Those I have known longest will be three next year and three of the original 6 are still with me regularly. Two who joined this year had significant damage to their basal knobs but I’m pleased to say they have healed nicely and I have become very close to these two. I also helped out ducklings in their early stages. This is a little dangerous as Mallard ducks are very greedy. Generally they do well out of what the swans drop but I’ve found if I leave the ducklings to survive on their own, the survival rate can be shockingly low. If I help them out, I can honestly report 100% survival into adulthood but it means I have had some very cheeky companions this year, vying with the swans for my attention.
What will happen over the Winter is unknown and unpredictable and next year I expect more will pair up and think about leaving. However, the cygnets from last year are still with me and who knows, perhaps some new ones will come along and join in with those who have recently arrived. People tell me they have never seen swans in such numbers on the lake and that is really satisfying, as it’s a good indication that the lake is healthy. It remains a journey of discovery for me and I still don’t know where it will take me but as long as I remain able, I will do my best for them and for the area in which they live.
by Andy Butcher