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Britain's largest round up of swans has been successfully completed at Abbotsbury Swannery.
Around 250 people volunteered to catch nearly 800 mute swans from the length and breadth of The Fleet lagoon, from Weymouth to Abbotsbury.
Over two exciting and dramatic days, 90 canoeists paddled seven miles up The Fleet to herd swans together and secure them inside booms and buoys. Next, children and adults camped out overnight at Shipmoor Point to stop the birds from escaping. Then, in the morning, people waded into the water to form a human net that steadily drove the swans on land.
All birds were then checked over by vets and scientists, weighed and measured, vaccinated against disease, ringed if they were not already ringed, and, as soon as possible, released.
The Round Up was supervised by Her Majesty’s Swan Warden, Professor Chris Perrins of Oxford University:
"We learn a lot from the Round Up but more importantly the swans benefit. It means we can have a jolly good look at every swan, and any bird that needs attention, gets attention."
Abbotsbury Swanherd Dave Wheeler said: "It is a huge amount of work and there is a certain amount of worry.
"We only get one crack at this, once every two years, so we have to get it right.
"One year, the wrong bloke was in the wrong place and we lost about 300 swans. All of a sudden the swans panicked and broke through the canoes. People were jumping in the water trying to stop them, but we lost the lot.
"This year it went superbly well, as smooth as silk. There was a wonderful spirit, a great mix of people, everyone worked together, it was fantastic.
"We caught 771 swans. We only missed about five or six, and we deliberately left 18 or so parents with cygnets.
"I judge the success of a Round Up not by how many swans we catch, but by how many we fail to catch, so to miss less than one per cent is brilliant."
Mute swans are among the heaviest flying birds in the world. Males generally weigh about 11 kilos (24lbs), females just over 9 kilos (20lbs), although two birds in recent years have topped 19 kilos (that’s 42lbs or three stone).
If all the swans caught this year could be formed into just one bird, it would weigh around eight tonnes.
To maximise people’s chances of catching as many swans as possible, and to make carrying large wet birds simpler, the Round Up is held when they are moulting and cannot fly.
Carrying swans is a magical experience. Dave Wheeler said:
"Hug them to you, so their wings are trapped, and swans are surprisingly easy to carry. It’s lovely. You can actually feel the heart of the swan, the movement and the warmth. I think that’s half the reason we get so many volunteers! It’s a great experience for children, not something they’ll get anywhere else."
The first Round Up was held in 1980, partly to assist Prof Perrins with long-term studies into the Abbotsbury swans.
Prof Perrins said:
"If you don’t ring the birds, you can’t identify them, and if you can’t identify them, then it is difficult to study them.
"I’ve got very attached to them over the years. They are very fine birds."
Prof Perrins has conducted studies into such questions as why individuals start and stop reproducing at certain ages, and whether swans with cygnets moult at different times because they need to keep using their powerful wings to defend their families.
Abbotsbury Swannery was founded by Benedictine monks in the 14th century. Many swans have interbred over a very long period of time and now act in ways that swans elsewhere do not.
Dave Wheeler said:
"There’s a strong core of birds that have modified their behaviour. They are very used to humans and remarkably tolerant. They don’t react to people in the way we would normally expect swans to react. They are very used to the environment of the Swannery and The Fleet and they behave in a way that suits this environment."
This is why Abbotsbury Swannery is the only place in the world where visitors can enjoy the experience of walking through a colony of mute swans.