Swans were top of the lavish banquet menu at Abbotsbury Monastery during Tudor times. They were the favourite food of monks and monarchs.
But how times have changed… today thousands of nature lovers come to celebrate this fabulous British bird rather than feasting on it.
Hundreds of Mute Swans nest at Abbotsbury during the spring and summer. This is a real life Swan Lake with wild swans flocking to this stunning coastal getaway off the Fleet lagoon in Dorset to raise their chicks.
Abbotsbury is the only place in Britain where you can walk through a colony of nesting Mute Swans and get up close to their cygnets.
Throughout late May and June, hundreds of cygnets hatch. They can be seen bobbing around on the ponds or plodding along the pathways, right next to the visitors.
What a fantastic wildlife experience!
Walking around the nature reserve, I kept wondering what attracts the wild swans in huge numbers?
The answer is the Fleet lagoon. At eight miles long, the Fleet is the largest tidal lagoon in the UK and provides a tasty supply of food that keeps the swans at Abbotsbury year round.
The lagoon is rich in eel grass which provides the swans with their staple diet. It’s also a great habitat for other nutritious marine life.
The Fleet also acts as a brilliant natural sanctuary for the swans.
Shelter is provided by Chesil Bank, an 18 mile long pebble beach which provides a natural barrier to the Fleet lagoon.
It is thought to have been formed at the end of the last Ice Age when debris from landslides was shifted along the coast from Devon as the ice melted and sea levels rose.
Abbotsbury’s natural sanctuary guarantees the hatching and rearing of thousands of cygnets right in front of your eyes. The Abbotsbury swans build around 80-90 nests every year, with an average of five eggs per couple.
If you’re lucky, you might see the cygnets hatching from their eggs in front of your own eyes.
A feast of swans
The Swannery wasn’t always a nature reserve. It was originally created by Benedictine monks who built a monastery at Abbotsbury during the 1040s.
The monks farmed the swans to produce food for their banquets. Swan was a much sought-after delicacy in the medieval and Tudor periods.
Roast swan was a popular dish in Tudor times, particularly when this large bird was skinned and re-dressed in its feathers. It was usually presented theatrically on a giant platter.
But what did it taste like? Some experts say that it tasted like a fattier version of beef or pork crossed with venison.
I must admit that the thought of eating one fills me with dread – not to mention the fact that it’s illegal. Today, the swans are on the conservation menu and are protected under law.
Abbotsbury is ‘cygnet central’ in May and June. The thrill of seeing the newly born cygnets provides a real ‘wow’ moment.
I spotted a group of seven tiny cygnets who were just one-day-old. They were like little bundles of fluff, rolling around the nest, trying to find their feet.
The broken egg shells were scattered in the nesting reeds. The proud parents alternated with nest sitting duties… until the wardens came over to ‘borrow’ the chicks’ and ring them.
The male bird or pen was incandescent with rage and defended the nest by flapping his wings furiously. The birds can get pretty aggressive when upset.
Luckily, the conservation guys have done this job before and managed to stave him off with a large shepherd’s crook.
Sleight of hand is definitely needed if you’re planning to ring a baby bird. You have to be courageous and quick-witted.
The swans continued to bellow their disapproval as the cygnets were taken around the corner for ringing.
Although removing the cygnets appears cruel, it’s actually in the birds’ best interests. They have to be ringed after one day before they start wandering around the hatching area, mixing with adults swans and getting muddled up with other cygnets.
It’s crucial to be able to identify which family the cygnets belong to. A lost cygnet can easily become be a dead chick if it’s attacked by a territorial adult bird. Their chances of survival increase if they are ringed so they can be returned to the right parents.
Fortunately, the ringing takes only a few minutes as each baby bird is lifted from a plastic bucket, held firmly, and fitted with a tag.
In between ringing, you can pick up one of the cygnets under supervision of the wardens. How soft, downy and vulnerable they feel – and they’re ridiculously cute. Not at all the ugly ducklings of Hans Christian Andersen fame!
During September and October, you’ll see the mature cygnets learning to fly. Expect a few crash landings!
Feeding time at the Swannery is one of the highlights of any visit to Abbotsbury. This mass feeding of up to 600 swans takes place daily at 12 noon and 4pm. It’s quite a spectacle.
Whilst the wardens are feeding the nesting swans behind the Fleet, it’s time to gather together the juvenile birds on the salt water lagoon.
This is done to protect the newly hatched cygnets and stop them from escaping into the lagoon. Young cygnets cannot survive on salt lagoons if they swallow the water.
It’s a mad rush for the swans to get to the front of the queue – a bit like being first in line at a giant avian canteen.
‘Swanherds’ feed the adult swans on wheat grains but the big attraction for families is that children can get in on the action. They can volunteer to feed the swans from buckets with scoops of grain. Adults can also try their hand although I was too shy to try this interactive experience in front of a large crowd!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many swans in one place at one time. There are so many birds that they form an amorphous white mass, resembling a giant carpet made from cotton wool balls.
The ‘Big Moult’
In mid summer the Swans begin their annual ‘big moult’. It’s a vulnerable time for the birds because when they moult, they can’t fly so they gather together for safety as they shed their feathers.
The female Swans moult first whilst the males keep their feathers for longer so they can continue to protect their youngsters.
Before the moult begins and the birds become grounded, it’s fun to watch the swans flying around the lagoon. Mute swans are the UK’s heaviest flying bird so it’s no surprise that their lift-off and landing techniques are ungainly. There’s nothing graceful about their take-off, but you can forgive them for making a big splash when they have this much weight to carry.
Walk around the far side of the reserve reveal to discover more nesting swans and a wide variety of bird life, from ducks and waders to warblers and geese. The reed beds are especially good for smaller birds.
People have been enjoying this real life Swan Lake for a century. In the late 1920s, Anna Pavlova came to Abbotsbury to seek inspiration for her production of the ballet Swan Lake.
Today, you can be inspired by one of the most stunning wildlife spectacles in Britain too. Don’t miss it!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Abbotsbury
The Swannery is located close to Abbotsbury village, 9 miles west of Weymouth in Dorset. It’s open 10:00-17:00 daily between mid March and 30 October (reduced hours in winter). The Swannery also has a Facebook page for the latest news.
There is an admission price for the Swannery which includes access to the reserve as well as family activities including a giant-sized maze, pedal go-carts, children’s play area and ‘bale mountain’.
Once every two years, the swans are rounded up for weighing and ringing. Around 50 canoes start at the far end of the lagoon and carefully drive the birds into the swannery bay. It’s quite a sight if you’re lucky enough to time your visit for this event.
After your visit to the reserve, why not take a walk around the ruins of St Peter’s Monastery in the village around St Nicholas’ Church.
Why not combine your visit to the Swannery with a trip to nearby Chesil Beach where you can walk along a section of the pebbly shore admiring the sea views.
It’s hard-going underfoot so don’t expect to walk very far unless you’re intent on doing some serious hiking. It’s a great spot for a picnic but don’t forget a beach towel unless you want a stippled backside!