The Swan Man
by Andy Butcher
I can’t remember when someone first referred to me as “The Swan Man” but it was probably NT Warden David Jackson, who was the inspiration behind me doing a daily litter pick, to try to help keep the area looking as it should. I do remember it was in July 2020 when I first met four beautiful young Swans. They were still with their parents then but seemed very friendly towards me while I was Paddleboarding and Swimming in the Lake.
From Horseman to Swan Man
For years I aspired to be a Horseman and horses were a huge part of my life until November 2019 when I had to let my horse go to Herefordshire to be with her best friend. It left a huge hole in my heart which I never thought at that stage would be filled by Swans. I’ve always admired Swans. They are big and powerful but beautiful and graceful too and I thought I would reward their friendship with a bit of food.
The right food
Floating Duck and Swan Food is the best thing, although other foods are recommended too but not bread, especially for youngsters. It has no real food value for them and simply fills them up, inhibiting them taking in valuable natural nutrition. The food I give is made of natural grains and seeds and I have a reliable quality supplier in Ark Wildlife. The other reason not to feed bread is that any not eaten will find its way to the bottom of the Lake and potentially contribute to the problem of Blue Green Algae. We don’t want anything in the Lake that shouldn’t be there.
A special connection
The first time I took some to the water they took it happily, while the parents kept their distance. After the parents left, as they do, I saw them in various parts of the Lake, until one day I found they had teamed up with another two of similar age. Between Norfolk and Wall Holm Island they suddenly turned one day and came paddling rapidly towards me and I knew then I had made a special connection. Not only did they take some food from me, they played round the board and seemed happy to stay with me. Swans will not overeat and so once they had had enough, I paddled on.
Some days I would see them, some days not, then one day when doing a litter pick in Silver Bay, I turned to find six Swans, out of the water, marching towards me. They always look bigger out of the water than in. I took them back into the water, as the food needs to be wet but it felt like our friendship had moved to another level. Swans are very intelligent and they do remember human kindness.
Becoming a routine
After that, they would spot me from sometimes about half a mile away and come paddling towards me, until a time when the weather was good for Paddleboarding every day for about three weeks. They then started to wait for me first thing in the morning and began to recognise my car as it turned into the car park. We started a routine where they would have an enthusiastic feed first thing, then go off to groom, while I went for a paddle. Returning to the Bay, they would be paddling towards me to welcome me back.
Although I didn’t intend to feed them from the hand so as not to encourage too much familiarity with humans, they seemed to want some contact and would nibble at my clothing and my fingers. At all times I have let them take the lead. Food was then dropped into the water to wet it. This helped develop trust between us. A word of warning though, my relationship has been established over time, so I would not advise trying to feed by hand, especially children. Swans can have a vice like grip and their beaks are serrated, so children in particular might find it a painful experience.
The next step was when they began following me and one day, one of them climbed onto the Paddleboard, much to my surprise I have to say. Three of them have tried this now and it was a huge compliment to me they could fall asleep beside me, indicating complete trust. On days when the wind was too strong to Paddleboard, I went just to be with them and the thought of them waiting for me meant I couldn’t disappoint them. In September I paddled into the Bay to see Susan Calman arrive and after saying hello, I fed the Swans as usual while talking to David and one of Susan’s Team asked me if I would mind doing an interview with Susan, which later appeared on her programme Susan Calman’s Grand Day Out in the Lake District.
Sometimes the Swans were nowhere to be seen but they would soon come paddling round the corner until one day they arrived flying in formation, which was a great thrill. Since then they have never failed to come and see me or me them, apart from one day in the Winter when the snow made conditions too risky to travel.
I was particularly anxious to keep feeding them through Winter when there is less food available. A Swan will eat 2.5 to 3.5 kilos of food per day and they don’t get all of that from me but it has helped them to grow and keep strong and healthy. Swans graze feed throughout the day but there comes a point when they have had enough of me and that’s my signal to leave.
And then there were 8, then 12
Into 2021, one day to my surprise, 8 Swans flew in. This was significant as previously, any newcomers who came near were chased out, as they all went into busking mode, which is where they fluff up their feathers. It looks magnificent and they also do this in the ritual between male and female. This ritual has proved useful, as at first it isn’t easy to tell males from females.
Females tend to be smaller and the basal knob, at the top of their beak, is also smaller. There is a slight difference in the shape of the head as they get older. Females have a slightly smaller more rounded head shape.
Over time, the team increased to 12. The new Swans were immediately quite happy to come near me and before long all became friends too. Some were a little under weight on arrival and some were more nervous than others but at the time of writing this, all are looking happy and healthy and pairings are starting to be established. Although Swans do not breed until after their 3rd year, perhaps longer. Sometimes I will get all 12, at other times one or more will miss a day or two and be happy to stay in other parts of the Lake. This is a journey of discovery and I don’t know where it will go, I just know I’ve been really lucky it’s happened to me.
Treat animals with kindness and respect and you never know where it will take you
I’ve been touched by the kindness of people who live in the area, many saying how much they enjoy seeing the Swans and it has been suggested by being here, it’s a good indication of the health of the Lake. Visitors too have said how much they enjoy seeing Swans but please remember, the Ullswater Swans are all wild and not as used to humans as many of those on Derwentwater and Windermere.
I sometimes see people landing on the Islands but I ask that you don’t do this, as they are home to some of the other birds who live on the Lake, Gulls, Cormorants and Geese. One day when Paddleboarding near, I was dive bombed by a Gull which was an indication they were protecting young ones, so I kept my distance. Ullswater is a large lake and in my view, the most beautiful. There is plenty of room for people to enjoy it but at all times, the local wildlife and farm animals take precedence. Treat animals with kindness and respect and you never know where it will take you, or just avoid them if that’s their wish. They will let you know….
By Andy Butcher, The Swan Man