Bewick’s swans soon to arrive in Amberley

Black swan.

Black swan.

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I TOOK this picture of a black swan ten years ago in Petworth Park on one of the lakes or ponds there.

I saw another two on a pond at West Ashling and then there was one mingling with the mute swans at Bosham Cutmill. You never know where one will turn up. Is there still one on Benbow lake in Cowdray Park?

The chances of seeing one of these Down-under oddities is rare indeed. The latest report on the waterbirds of the UK published by the British Trust for Ornithology in conjunction with the RSPB and WWT shows that only about one hundred of them live here. They’re protected here but in Aussie you can shoot them. A friend who lives in Tasmania managing a sheep farm has seen the locals at it. Not a pretty sight.

The local freedom fighters (freedom for myself that is) line their hides with empty cans of Fosters and blast the sky all around themselves sometimes getting a blackie for supper.

Over the top side of the planet we treat these exotics with deference and respect and enjoy their certain awe in the myths of Tchaikovsky. Places where four or more black swans are in the Midlands and Essex. The report also shows us where all the mute swans are. 74,000 of those are scattered on lakes and estuaries but the highest number are on the Somerset Levels with just over a thousand.

Another thousand live at Abbotsbury on the Fleet and Lough Neagh and Beg host the same number each. It won’t be long now before our other Sussex swans show up. Bewick’s swans, named after the famous 18th century engraver Thomas Bewick whose works have probably never been surpassed and who first showed this small rare swan to the wider public, will hopefully start to arrive in Amberley Wildbrooks in November.

The UK winter population is 7,000 birds, most of them wintering on the Ouse and Nene washes, while Peter Scott’s old haunts at Slimbridge hosts about 340. Old Sussex ‘fowlers used to call Bewick’s swans “tame swans” and indeed they have not much more caution than the mute. But the whopper swan they called the “wild swan”. This massive white bird is a true rarity down here although in the UK 16,502 were counted in January 2010, most of them on the Cambridgeshire washes. Most of the others were up north.

The mini ice age in Victorian times brought a lot down there to Sussex and a lot were shot by punt gunners out to sea and I expect made many a hungry family a little happier. Once or twice I have eaten swan when a bird has collided with electricity wires for instance, and very good they are too.

They cut in any direction like corned beer and are as dark as an old goose and much tastier. Down Under they eat black swans they can hit after drinking their cans of beer but they do say some of the old birds are as tough as kangaroo leather.

Richard Williamson