At this time of year swans are holding territories and nest building. There is no doubt that swans are an emotive subject in Sudbury. Rather like the familiar household spread, you either love them or hate them, although the reasons for the choices are at best very subjective. However, when one sees a pair of swans greeting one another out on the water it is difficult not to be enchanted by their elegance.
Only forty years ago swans in Sudbury were few and far between. Now, through plentiful ad-lib feeding and other changes, the swan population remains large all year round although during the winter the resident swan numbers increase as ‘outsiders’ seek the assurance of ‘ready meals’ every day.
As swan numbers are so high there is no possibility of all of them finding territories which they require to breed and nest. Territories are defended by powerful dominant cob swans against all other swans and territorial disputes can be exhausting and bruising. Deaths from disputes are unusual as the weaker swan generally gives up the fight and then may sit out on the riverbank for many hours to recover.
The territories have shrunk ever smaller and some of them are highly unsuitable such as on the smaller internal ditches on the meadows where people, dogs, and cattle cause disturbance to nests. The small territories also lead to problems between breeding pairs because once the pairs have hatched their cygnets, they tend to take them to the river where there are already other pairs with families. This leads to confrontation which, in turn, leads to distress among the human witnesses even though the problems have been created by humans in the first instance. Many of us like to help our garden birds by putting out food so, by extension, the feeding of swans could be seen in the same light except that it is taking place out on the river. There is no doubt, however, that it leads to a serious imbalance.
The mute swan is our largest native bird and is beautiful to behold flying over the Sudbury riverside or swimming regally on the river. On the issue of regal there is a general misconception that all swans belong to the Queen. Until the reign of Edward 1V (1461-1463) the swan was officially regarded as the royal bird but that was five and a half centuries ago. However, even in those times many ‘unauthorised’ people marked and kept swans for their own use. In 1462, an act of parliament recognised this fact and restricted the right of possession to owners of freehold property of a particular value. At the time, swan was a highly esteemed source of food and soon swan registers theoretically recorded the ownership of every swan. One wonders whether any Freemen of Sudbury owned swans or whether they remained the province of the Lord or Lady of the Manor as of right. There seems to be no record of this even though it would have been an issue of great importance at that time.