Swans are certainly one of the most universally admired birds, beautiful with their pure colors, graceful necks, and seemingly imperturbable and stately progress along the water.
Well, so it seems, until you see a few hundred of them crammed together at the shore, pushing to get at the food being distributed, or chasing another bird that’s gotten to close to their chicks, or cygnets.
We got a good taste of that at the end of May when we visited the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorsetshire, home of the world’s only managed colony of nesting mute swans. New experience for us, but not for the swans: they go back to at least the 12th century at the same site.
As visitors, we got to see an estimated 6-800 swans who nest in the area, hatch their cygnets, teach them to swim and then to fly. That takes a while, because after the hatching season, the adults molt their feathers and can’t fly until the new ones grow in.
Our visit was early in the hatching season, a prime time to visit. Roadside signs all along the way from Weymouth, at every turn in the road, announced that there were new hatchlings. We followed the signs down narrow roadways, past fields of sheep, and parked near a gift shop filled with anything ‘swan’ you could imagine.
Following a path from there, we began to encounter the occasional swan, gliding down small streams, occasionally accompanied by fuzzy gray cygnets, and paying us no attention. The Swannery is on the shore of The Fleet, a lagoon between the inner shore and Chesil Beach, a long narrow barrier beach that keeps out rough seas.
Because the week was a school holiday, there were plenty of families and small children around, keeping it lively; there was even an outdoor play area for them to run off steam in, as well as an exhibit of birds of prey, run by a local enthusiast group.
The Fleet has been a swan magnet for a thousand years; its calm waters are full of weeds the swans eat, along with worms, frogs and small fish. At the Swannery, they also get a once-a-day in-season shot at buckets of feed because there are too many for the available resources at nesting time. That’s a big attraction not only for the birds, but for the visitors.
In the 1920s, Anna Pavlova brought her ballet troupe to Abbotsbury to dance with the swans and learn from. And yes, they did 'Swan Lake.'
The Swannery is part of the Ilchester Estate, owned by descendants of the Stangways family, who obviously kept on the right side of King Henry VIII: when Henry shut down England’s monasteries and religious communities, they came out of it with some 15,000 acres around Abbotsbury, including the properties of the former Abbey of St. Peter. The estate owns much of The Fleet and Chesil Beach and all of the village of Abbotsbury.
The former Duck Decoy house serves as an introduction and museum.
The Abbey was founded in the 11th century, and kept the swans as a source of meat. Traditionally, the King or Queen has the rights to all unmarked mute swans in England, and only certain groups are allowed to mark and own swans. Mostly the Crown only claims the swans in the Thames, but Abbotsbury has had the right since at least the 12th century, along with some of the London guilds.
Swans are very territorial. At the Swannery, they’ve learned to tolerate the human visitors, but often not other swans. In a crowded place, fights can break out, and workers use separate pens to provide a safe place for weaker families. Occasionally, a cygnet will become lost or abandoned. When that happens, they’re placed with another family and are usually adopted.
We noticed that the staff were quick to draw young children into the feeding and activiites, and to encourage them to hold the cygnets (but not the adults!). They also encouraged older adults and people with wheelchairs or walkers to come closer so they could handle the birds. Or anyone else who asked! Apparently, the parents don’t mind as long as the young are returned at a reasonable hour!
Adult female takes a stretch after an egg-warming session. But she didn't go very far!
If you have the chance, we recommend the visit! It’s only about 10 miles from Weymouth, but a lot of it is down narrow lanes at the village, so be patient. There’s also bus service to Abbotsbury from towns all along the coast, but it’s not frequent or direct, so a car might be best.
Not all the swans are white, and not all the birds are swans. Some varieties of geese are able to mate with swans, which might shed some light on the 'Ugly Duckling' story... We also noticed this fellow along a path. Pheasant, we think.
Bugs form part of the area's flora and fauna, and to keep them in the mix, these fallen timbers were kept to serve as a "Bug Hotel." The other major resident of the area, found by the hundreds in surrounding fields are these sheep, who lay peacefully in the field as though they had no real work to do. Maybe they really didn't!
And a few more swans, for good measure.