Shooting swans - a modern tale
According to mythology, a swan will sing beautifully and mournfully just before it dies.
It’s the origin of the phrase “a swan song” – the final gesture before retirement or death.
It’s not true: swans don’t call out this way. But the romantics among us might wish they did, if only to warn us of the nature of the birds' passing.
For newly published research has revealed that swans are still frequently being shot, and in some number.
And they are being shot illegally, it’s important to point out, as swans have been protected by national and international legislation throughout their ranges since the mid 20th Century.
Data has been collected showing how many Bewick’s and whooper swans, two migratory species that overwinter in the UK and the Irish Republic, have been peppered with shotgun pellets.
Let’s talk numbers.
First up, the Bewick’s swan, a large migratory bird that flies into the UK and the Irish Republic each winter from Scandinavia and arctic Russia.
Between the winters of 1970/71 and 2008/09 when the sampling of this species was done, 31.2% of live surveyed birds were found to be carrying shotgun pellets.
For the larger whooper swans which fly in from northwest Europe and Iceland, the sampling was done between 1988/89 and 2007/08.
Of live whooper swans surveyed, 13.6% had been shot at least once in the past and survived.
So almost one in three Bewick’s swans, and more than one in eight whooper swans had been fired upon, and hit, at some point in their lives.
These figures were obtained by Julia Newth, Martin Brown and Eileen Rees of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, and have just been published in the journal Biological Conservation.
The research team trapped live swans at different sites in the UK and x-rayed their bodies, to reveal the presence of gun shot (in their tissues, not gizzards, confirming they weren’t eaten by the birds).
The data reveals what proportion of sampled swans survived a shooting – it doesn’t say anything about the number of swans that didn’t make it.
“With such high levels of wounding, it follows that many birds are probably killed by shooting,” says the WWT.
Also, swans that survive a shooting aren’t out of the proverbial woods. Research shows swans, geese and ducks that have survived a shooting still tend to die younger, on average, perhaps due to the injury or trauma.
Now let’s talk history.
Swans in the UK once faced a significant threat from another type of lead shot.
When foraging for grit, which the birds use to break down food, they used to inadvertently ingest lead weights favoured by anglers. Strong circumstantial evidence suggested these weights poisoned large numbers of swans.
Since the use of these weights was restricted in 1987, populations of mute swans (which tend to live in the UK year round) have increased significantly.
That threat is now receding, as to a degree is the threat from hunters with guns, perhaps due to the influence of legislation. Bewick’s and whooper swans have long been protected from hunting throughout their migratory ranges (since 1885 in Iceland, 1954 in the UK, 1964 in Russia and 1976 in the Irish Republic).
For example, the WWT’s data shows that, over time, the proportion of sampled Bewick’s swans found with shot in their bodies has declined, from a peak of 39% in the 1980s to almost 23% in the 2000s.
But that suggests that, even today, around one in four living Bewick’s swans arriving on our shores has been shot and survived.
Also, there is no such decline in the proportion of whooper swans suffering the same: 14% of those x-rayed in the late 1980s contained shot compared to 13% in the past decade.
It is not clear where the swans were shot. There is evidence they are shot throughout their ranges: Bewick’s swans have been found shot dead in Estonia and Russia while shot whooper swans have been recovered in Iceland, France and the Irish Republic.
A higher proportion of Bewick’s swans are thought to be shot due to the fact they migrate longer distances, with more of it occurring over land, whereas the whooper swans’ shorter migration is mainly over open ocean.
But they are clearly being shot in the UK too.
A number of adult swans had a greater number of pellets in their bodies when sampled a second time in the same winter in the UK, showing they had been shot in this country. News organisations have also reported swans being shot in Somerset, Nottinghamshire
and North Tyneside.
Swans have always been poached. They also become entangled in fishing gear, can hit power lines and be affected by freshwater pollution.
But perhaps these pressures are reasons to take more notice of the fact that swans are still being shot, illegally, in relatively large numbers.
Worldwide, mute swan populations are healthy, and are growing in the UK. Cygnet season is upon us, as over the next six weeks baby mute swans begin hatching in wetlands around the UK. The arrival of these cygnets should ensure another generation of one of Britain’s largest and most impressive birds.
Globally, whooper swan numbers appear stable. However, Bewick’s swan numbers have fallen steadily since the mid-1990s. Doing more to enforce the hunting bans is one way to help arrest their decline.
A swan song may be a mythical act. But shooting swans is a very real gesture, one that the WWT feels compelled to make a noise about.