Fishing Lines: Swans don't merit this song and dance

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The Independent Online

One of the most amusing things I ever saw (but not for the swan) took place on the banks of Nottingham's River Trent during a gruelling winter competition. Very little was being caught. A biting wind and near-zero temperatures meant that most competitors were cowering under giant green umbrellas, watching a motionless rod-tip.

Not so Terry Dorman. Terry, a bait breeder, had an impish sense of humour. He was not a man content to wait for something to happen. I watched him feeding a swan, which was eventually eating from his hand. Terry grabbed the swan, tucked it under his broad arm and headed along the bank. I gazed with fascination as he crept up behind one of the umbrellas, lifted it slightly, pushed the swan underneath and scuttled away.

Mayhem ensued. The umbrella shot in the air, rods and bait boxes went everywhere and the angler fell backwards as the indignant swan pecked him and splashed off, knocking his rod into the water.

Swans? Don't like 'em. But I don't hate them, either. According to last week's Independent on Sunday, the mute swan population has grown so rapidly that anglers have formally complained to the Government, asking for swans to be culled because they have caused a shortage of fish. The story claimed that species under threat included sea trout, salmon, sticklebacks and perch.

Much as I hate to bite the hand that feeds me, I've spent this week phoning round to see who has supposedly made a formal complaint, and none of the main angling or fisheries organisations knows a thing about it.

The story prompted the BBC, anticipating an anglers v bird-lovers' spat, to call on Paul Knight, the director of the Salmon and Trout Association. A confront-ation with a representative of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was set up. But it didn't work out as planned. Far from saying he wanted all swans clubbed to death, Knight said most anglers were perfectly happy with them, and that the big problem was rampant abstraction from rivers. The RSPB person nodded enthusiastically. (It never made the lunchtime news.)

Swans, you see, are vegetation grazers. They don't scoff shoals of fish. Too hard to catch. While they will eat insects, frogs and dead fish, almost all their diet is river weed (or, increasingly, bread). Gobbling up elodea or potamogeton won't affect the sea trout or salmon population much. Perch? Their numbers are at an all-time high.

Swans are helped by Danny Kaye songs and their looks, but actually they are aggressive, spiteful bullies. Still, there are worse things: Canada geese, for a start. A 10lb goose produces 4lb of roly-poly a day. Up to 2in of goose poo clogs the bottom of California's Lake Tahoe, the lake's biggest pollution threat.

Cormorants and goosanders are a lot more harmful to fish. A picture in an old fishing gazette shows a 4lb sea trout retrieved from a cormorant's stomach.

And for those who think swans set an example to humans, they don't pair for life either. Some have as many as four mates, or sometimes divorce one mate in favour of another. So there.