Abbotsbury Swannery is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans in the world. It is situated near the village of Abbotsbury in Dorset, England, 14 kilometres (9 mi) west of Weymouth on a 1-hectare (2-acre) site around the Fleet lagoon protected from the weather of Lyme Bay by Chesil Beach. The colony can number over 600 swans with around 150 pairs. Written records of the swannery’s existence go back to 1393 but it probably existed well before that.
The Fleet lagoon formed at the end of the last ice age as melt water flooded behind the already formed Chesil Beach leaving shallow salty water in which weeds grew profusely producing an ideal environment for nesting birds. The Benedictine monastery of St. Peter's was established on the site in the eleventh century at the bequest of King Cnut, and the monks managed the swans as a ready source of meat.
The swannery was used by the monks until 1539 when the monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII. It was then purchased by the Strangways family and has remained in their ownership through fifteen generations up to the present day: an estate of some 61 square kilometres (15,000 acres) in Dorset covering Chesil Beach and Abbotsbury is still held by the Ilchester Estate owned by Mrs Charlotte Townshend, the daughter of Viscount Galway, a descendant of the first Countess of Ilchester.
The Swannery today
Abbotsbury swannery is today a tourist attraction and the swans have become accustomed to the presence of visitors and allow close but respectful approach even in the nesting season when cygnets are on the nest. Before viewing the swans, visitors can look at the Decoyman’s House which sets the scene for the visit with a display explaining how the colony has been managed over the years and how the present situation has evolved. Apart from the swans, the Fleet and Chesil Beach attracts many species of waterfowl and over 300 different varieties have been recorded leading to the area being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protected Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Nesting mute swans are usually intensely territorial, so it is unusual to see this many pairs in proximity to each other. However, the closeness of the nests can sometimes lead to problems as newly hatched cygnets can become attached to the wrong parent bird; to overcome this rearing pens are used for a few selected families who need more privacy. Visitors are sometimes allowed to hold the cygnets under supervision from the swanherds. The daily feeding sessions take place at noon and 4 p.m. and are interesting to witness as a large mass of the birds gather round, children are invited to help with the feeding.
At the end of July the swans become flightless for around six weeks due to the moulting of their feathers and once every two years the swans are rounded up at this time of year so that they can be examined, weighed and measured and any new birds to the colony ringed. The round-up is undertaken by around 50 canoes that start at the eastern end of the lagoon and slowly drive the birds into the swannery bay at Abbotsbury. In the past the round-up has resulted in over 900 birds being caught and recorded.
Today, there are around 600 swans.
The visitors handbook “Abbotsbury Swannery and the Fleet” ISBN 0-7117-1512-2 was used in compiling this article.