The vast majority of swans which you may see in the British countryside are white. The beautiful white mute swan is a common site but you may also stumble across a black swan. The black swan (Cygnus atratus) is a native of Australia but several of these striking birds are now living in the wild in the UK. The swans appear to be jet black but actually boast white primary wing feathers which are visible when the birds are in flight.
The black swan's natural habitat is similar to that of the mute swan. The birds are native to Australia and are the state bird of Western Australia. The first specimen was brought to the UK in 1791 and the swans became popular additions to private collections and zoos. However, some of the birds escaped into the wild and have bred successfully.
In 2005 there were fewer than 20 breeding pairs in the UK but there are now many more. There could be as many as 120 breeding pairs and the birds have been sighted at as many as 200 different locations across the country. The largest cluster of the birds is to be found in Dawlish Warren, Devon where they were introduced many years ago. They are the emblem of the town.
It is possible that these birds could become well-established as they did when they were introduced to New Zealand. The birds are more aggressive than mute swans towards other birds and face little predation and so quickly began to do well in the antipodes. Perhaps the same could happen in the UK.
Conservationists fear than black swans could threaten our native mute swans. The black swans are also more aggressive to humans than their white cousins and could pose a threat to agriculture by grazing and fouling grasses and eating crops.
Black Swans and the Law
The black swan is listed under Schedule 9 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 with respect to England and Wales. Under the act, it is an offence to release or allow the escape of this species into the wild.
The black swans could mate with white swans as a hybrid has been successfully bred in captivity and is called a blute swan. These birds would be an extraordinary site but may not be the best outcome for the swan population.
Black Swan at Abbotsbury Swannery
In 2012 a black swan arrived unexpectedly at the famous Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset. It set up home with the other 600 residents which are all white mute swans. Visitors to the Swannery were excited to see the bird and it was hard to miss this specimen in a sea of white! This swannery is a sanctuary and not a zoo so birds can come and go as they please.
Have you seen a black swan and, if so, where did you spot one?