This stretch of the Stour has a special relationship with mute swans. Sudbury and many of its surrounding villages – Henny, Bures, Long Melford, Lavenham, Little Waldingfield, Clare - have or have had a pub or hotel named after Cygnus olor.
Mute swans are now such a fixture on the Common Lands that it is easy to take their wonderful presence for granted, especially because they have become semi-domesticated and are quite tame. Despite the popultaion being ravaged by the recent avian flu outbreak, there are still scores of swans on and around the Common Lands – a number that is artificially high because people feed them. Even so, the total is in sharp contrast to thirty years ago when there was only one pair.
Mute swans are territorial, and alpha cob (male) swans hold territory in different areas of the Common Lands. Every spring they must fend off other male swans who challenge them for territory and mating rights. Many of the males who fail can be seen congregating at Brundon Mill where they continue their constant battle for one upmanship - nibbing other swans’ necks with their beaks and driving through the water with their wings curved up to intimidate rivals.
Male and female mute swans can be difficult to discern. Males tend to be larger, as does their basal knob, the name of the mysterious bump located at the base of the bill. Experts are not certain about the purpose of the basal knob, although it is believed they may serve as an indicator of health or sexual maturity, particularly during the mating season when they become larger.
The male and the female birds, the cob and pen, usually attempt to mate for life. Regular users of the Common Lands will have seen their huge nests made from assorted vegetation, sticks and rushes, constructed at the water's edge. The nest is built by the female, while the male supplies the materials.
Mute swans can be aggressive in defence of their nests and are highly protective of their mate and offspring. Most defensive attacks from a mute swan begin with a loud hiss and, if this is not sufficient to drive off the predator, are followed by a physical attack. Swans attack by smashing at their enemy with bony spurs in the wings.
It is imperative that dog owners are aware of this and keep their pets on leads near swans. The Commons Lands is their territory and each year our rangers receive reports of dogs attacking swans.
Kayakers and canoeists should also try to give swans a wide berth, especially if they are with their cygnets.