Where have the mute swans gone?

By Colin Birse

It disturbed the society to see fewer and fewer swans on the Lea in the stretch from the Library Car Park to the Saracens Head Bridgefind in the last couple of years, so the Ware Society's Colin Birse agreed to investigate. He did a thorough job and contacted a whole lot of organisations including RSPB, Herts & Middx. Wildlife Trust (HMWT) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

The mute swans have been a feature of Ware for centuries. Five to ten years ago there were very large numbers of swans on the stretch of the River Lea at Ware. Regularly there were in excess of one hundred birds in the winter months.  We know Mute Swans are highly territorial and can be excessively aggressive in protecting their territory and we also know that once a breeding pair has selected an area where they want to build a nest, they will not tolerate other swans in that area. What we didn't realize is that this area can be up to two kilometres long. Apparently the swans do this in order to safeguard the food supply for the new cygnets.

When there are large flocks of swans these are usually non-breeding birds that gather in places where there is no breeding pair and a plentiful food supply. Historically, large numbers of swans in this sector of the Lea Valley was associated with grain spill into the river from the malting industry. When the industry withdrew from the riverside, the numbers started to decline.

A local woman who was well known to riverside walkers had a 4WD vehicle with ”Swan Patrol” written on it and this helped to increase their numbers as she fed the swans on a daily basis. However, feeding the awans also led to an increase in rats along the river, so she had to be stopped from doing this on the grounds of Health and Safety.

In addition, while the lady was feeding the swans there was no breeding pair in this sector of the river. However, a breeding pair is now established and may well have driven the remainder of the birds away.

There are many tales of poaching swans for food but these are simply "fishermans tales" and there is no evidence to back up these stories.  Certainly there have been no prosecutions either so no credence can be placed on these stories.

There is some evidence from a government website about a virual infection affecting swans. However, this would certinly mean that swan carcasses would be on the riverbank and as this hasn't happened then it also most unlikely to have occurred in Ware.

In conclusion, there is no definitive answer to the loss of swans on the Lea at Ware. However, it is likely that it is a combination of factors. There is no sustained feeding that encourages the birds and a most importantly a breeding pair has now moved into this section of the river.

On a positive note there is a healthy population of Mute Swans in the area. Mike Reed, the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust swan expert says “ there are at least sixteen birds in the Ware area of which six are this year’s cygnets”.

We hope that these beautiful birds once again grace our stretch of the Lea in large numbers.

The Ware Society is grateful to Colin Birse for this article.