There are few sights more beautiful to behold in nature, than the graceful, elegant swan. An ethereal vision of purity and dignity, this great white bird has been a source of inspiration to poets, writers, musicians and artists throughout time. Swans are seen as romantic symbols of love and fidelity around the world, because when they mate, they mate for life. These majestic creatures hold a key place in ancient Irish tales such as The Children of Lir, in Greek mythology in stories such as Leda and the Swan. They’ve inspired some of our greatest poets such as William Butler Years, as well as the composer of one of the most romantic and beloved ballets of all time, Tchaikovsky and his classic masterpiece, Swan Lake.
Altogether, there are seven species of swan, and in Ireland, we have three which occur naturally: the Mute Swan (which is resident here), as well as the Whooper Swan and the Bewick’s Swan, which are both migratory.
Another particular favourite is the Trumpeter swan, the biggest swan in the world and, as its name suggests, it trumpets triumphantly with a haunting and most distinctive call.
The Trumpeter’s story is a dramatic one. Hunting and trapping drove these birds to the edge of extinction in the southern United States. In 1932, they numbered just 69 birds, with an estimated 2,000 more in Alaska. Mercifully, three years later, a reserve was established and slowly numbers began to increase and the birds were transported to areas such as Oregon, Nevada and South Dakota to be reintroduced to some of their old haunts.
However, one rather odd problem remained. The baby Trumpeters are taught their migration routes by their parents - but when birds are transported to new or, in this case, old locations, they miss the geography lesson and so have no idea where they should go at migration time. As a result, they frequently fly off in the most inappropriate directions.
At Airlie in Virginia, a revolutionary technique was introduced, with newly fledged Trumpeters being trained to fly behind micro-light aircraft. In 2001, our very own Dr. Richard Collins visited Airlie to learn more about how micro-lights were working as surrogate parents. There, Richard talked to Dr Bill Sladen, who was the director of the Trumpeter Swan project. Bill's work inspired the 1996 Hollywood movie Fly Away Home, on which he acted as Technical Advisor:
But there has been some very sad news: we’ve recently heard that on May 29th this year, just a few weeks ago, Bill Sladen passed away at his home in Warrenton, Virginia, in May at the impressive age of 96 years...
Tonight, we pay tribute to the pioneering work of Bill Sladen, as Derek and Richard muse in Malahide, in the company of a bevy of mute swans...
Richard beside the mute swans of Malahide...
To read more about Bill Sladen's work on trumpeter swans and microlight surrogates, click here, and to read The Washington Post's obituary of Bill Sladen, click here.
About the documentary The Trumpeter Swan:
(2001) Swan doctor, Richard Collins, travels to North America to view the 'Trumpeter' swan. The Trumpeter is the largest swan in the world and the heaviest flying animal. An all-white bird with a black bill and a black eye, it lives in the wilderness of sub-arctic North America, particularly in Alaska.
In the programme Richard Collins visits Airlie and talks to Dr. Bill Sladen, director of the Trumpeter Swan project, and his dedicated staff. He also talks to the 'swan-mammas' who dress up in white suits before approaching the swans (so that the birds retain their fear of people) and the pilot (also dressed up for the occasion) who takes to the skies each day with his swan trainees.
Hedgerows: It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here.
UPDATE: February 29th 2016 - Press Release From BirdWatch Ireland:
Putting the record straight: Dates for burning and hedge-cutting have NOT changed
BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation charity, is very concerned about misinformation that is currently circulating regarding the dates within which the burning of vegetation and cutting of hedges is permitted. It would like to remind landowners that all burning and cutting must cease on 29th February this year and that burning and cutting remains prohibited from 1st March to 31st August.
Despite attempts by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys T.D., to change the laws regulating these dates by introducing the Heritage Bill 2016 earlier this year, it is important to note that the proposed date changes were ultimately NOT made. This is because the bill failed to pass through both houses of the Oireachtas before the recent dissolution of the Dáil in advance of the general election.
The laws in place governing the dates for hedge-cutting and upland burning therefore remain unchanged. The period within which cutting and burning is prohibited are set down in Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 (as amended in 2000), which states that:
(a) It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy, during the period beginning on the 1st day of March and ending on the 31st day of August in any year, any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated.
(b) It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch during the period mentioned in paragraph (a) of this subsection (above).
The existing law provides exemptions for road safety and other circumstances and should be read carefully to ensure compliance.
Section 40 of the Wildlife Act exists to protect nesting birds. Many of our upland bird species are in decline and are in danger of extinction in Ireland; amongst them is the Curlew, which has declined by 80%. Many birds which nest in hedgerows into August are also in serious decline, including the endangered Yellowhammer. The changes to the cutting and burning dates which had been proposed in the now-defunct Heritage Bill 2016 would have caused serious impacts to these birds. A petition launched by BirdWatch Ireland in conjunction with several other national conservation organisations to stop these changes attracted more than 16,200 signatures and rising.
BirdWatch Ireland would also like to advise members of the public that if they see hedges being cut or fires in the uplands on or after 1st March, such activity could be illegal. In such cases, we would encourage people to contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service (www.npws.ie) to report such activity.
BirdWatch Ireland warmly welcomes the demise of the Heritage Bill 2016 and sincerely hopes that any future administration will consider the importance of Ireland’s natural heritage and will not attempt to reintroduce such a flawed and damaging piece of legislation.
To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.
Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild.
If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie