I am writing to explain the ACA’s (and Bigbury Parish Council’s) attitude to the feeding of swans on the Avon Estuary which has featured in the local news recently. Anybody who is not familiar with the details might find our attitude difficult to understand. We are not talking about a few crumbs thrown into a village pond by excited children! Rather, this is an ‘industrial-scale’, daily routine of artificial feeding with an alien diet by one man with an obsession. Bigbury Parish Council – in conjunction with the ACA – has responded to police and parishioner requests to post an advisory notice about wildfowl feeding on the Tidal Road (see this link – DON’T FEED THE WATERFOWL) because of the perceived hazard to humans posed by the swans and by the nuisance caused to road and river users by one man. We recognise that the feeding is not illegal but hope, probably forlornly, that this notice will help to stop it and the associated anti-social behaviour. There are also powerful biological arguments for stopping the feeding.
Our first concern is the preservation of free access to the estuary and the Tidal Road for the public. The estuary, of course, is an asset of huge recreational importance. We should all be concerned whenever that recreational experience is spoiled. The local police became involved because of the very widely reported nuisance behaviour of ‘Swan Man’ – who is spoiling the estuary experience for many users of the water and Tidal Road with his off-putting, personal behaviour whenever he feels that his ‘charges’ may be at risk. The police have asked that anybody who feels threatened in any way (and it may be very early in the morning or very late at night, depending on the tides) should report details of the incident on their 101 non-emergency number. The Duchy of Cornwall has asked us to make it very clear that ‘Swan Man’ is not acting as their agent, in any capacity, despite what he may claim.
Our biological concerns are explained in outline on the poster (local ornithologists and wildfowl experts were consulted on the wording of the sign and we are confident that the statements are an accurate representation of the facts). We have been told by experts that swans are attracted to our estuary from other local habitats by this artificial feeding programme, the regularity and scale of which causes a large congregation of swans at one point – usually at the Bigbury end of the Tidal Road. In addition, large–scale swan feeding creates an ecological imbalance in the estuary which probably goes way beyond the nutritional impact of an alien diet on the swans, themselves, and may affect other species in a complex interaction. One example may help to make the point: an adult mute swan can consume 3-4 kg of submerged aquatic vegetation per day (the normal diet) – that is almost 5 tonnes of vegetation per month for the average number (around 40) of swans that are resident in the estuary throughout the year, never mind what the extra visitors consume. Sixty tonnes of food per year equates to an awful lot of faecal waste excreted into the estuary! We need the resident swans to be feeding throughout the estuary on a natural diet, not just in one place on ‘organic’ grain. These days, swans are rarely seen near Bantham, we are told.
A further biological point involves changes in swan behaviour. Swans display a natural, aggressive, territorial behaviour when threatened. Such behaviour is well documented and may become a hazard to humans. Swans regularly fed by humans will start to associate people with food. Therefore, these swans may approach people more closely than otherwise and might become more aggressive if no food is provided.