And so it goes on day after day, week after week and the calls keep coming. When the phone rings, particularly the mobile, it’s almost certainly to do with a swan in distress somewhere – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, over the river Severn into Bristol or Avon but wherever it is, it’s almost a foregone conclusion it will involve discarded fishing tackle and some poor bird in need of help. And today, Sunday 16th October 2011 was no exception. Thankfully, if there was anything to be thankful for, it was only down the road on our local canal, just off the next junction of the M4 and it was one of the cygnets of a family we know well. These two parent swans had a lot to be proud of, having successfully reared eight very handsome cygnets.
When we arrived we were told three ‘fishermen’ had been there earlier that day; they stayed only a short time and then left, but leaving behind them in the water two triple micro barbed hooks joined together with 6cms of coarse wire; one of the hooks had become firmly embedded in the tip of the lower bill of the cygnet we had been called to rescue. Separate from these was a plastic miniature pear-shaped float attached to roughly two metres of very heavy gauge fishing line which had managed to wrap itself around the cygnet and apparently, before we arrived, was also attached to the female swan so when she moved, it pulled the line attached to the hook in the cygnets beak forcing his head down under the water. Thankfully, due to both swans struggling, the adult swan had managed to free herself.
Quite a crowd had gathered and were watching helplessly as the baby struggled to free himself. There was only one course of action to take; as I distracted the attention of the other cygnets and the adults with pieces of bread Peter lowered himself into the water and carefully made his way across to the other side of the canal where the cygnet was. It was not easy because of the deep and very soft sediment on the bottom of the canal but he was soon close enough to grab the baby and struggle back to the bank but then he got stuck, he was unable to move because of the thick sediment and so he was grateful for the helping hand offered by one of the guys to haul him and the distraught cygnet up onto the bank. To do this, he too was in the canal up to his waist. The situation was made worse by the fact the fishing line had also become entangled with a mass of dense blanket weed which was weighing it down. At first we were concerned about how the adult swans would react to one of their babies being taken away. If this had happened five months ago when the cygnets were tiny then their attitude would have been very different but this time it was almost as if they understood Peter was trying to help. Eventually we disentangled him from all the line around his right wing, and tightly, several times around his left leg.
As we were leaving the canal bank, we were asked by a number of the by-standers if we would be bringing the bird back. We made it clear we wouldn’t be doing that; by not doing so we were effectively guaranteeing (as far as it is possible) a safe passage away from the nesting site, at a time when he would either be going anyway of his own accord, or the cob would be driving him away. The concept of a ‘safe passage’ is particularly relevant here because of the proximity of a stretch of the M4 motorway which is described as one of the busiest in the country.
In the meantime, as a result of his experience, it was clear this 10.5 kg juvenile was both traumatised and exhausted, so we took him into care. As it turned out, this was just for 24 hours, after which we released him into a local non-breeding flock.