'You see birds swarm like bees'

Dave Wheeler (right) is the swanherd at the Abbotsbury Swannery on the south Dorset coast, an independent waterfowl sanctuary.

What does a swanherd do?

I work with a very small team looking after the sanctuary, which has been a colonial nesting site for mute swans for more than 600 years. We record and study the swans and take visitors and school parties round.

Swans are normally territorial, and it's unusual for them to nest in a colony as they do at Abbotsbury; but even here they compete for space with their neighbours. So while they're nesting, we try to help them maintain their territory and make sure they have everything they need. That might mean feeding the swans at their nests or helping to keep cygnets close to their nests so that they can recognise their mother's call.

We record every egg laid, and within a day of hatching, we sex, tag and mark each cygnet. At the end of the summer, we put adult rings on them.

What do you love most about your job?

The thing I love most is the variety. A lot of the work is seasonal, and nesting is very exciting - because the swans are accustomed to visitors, they'll allow people to stand right beside them, even when they're hatching. We're very proud of the site, so it's really rewarding to get feedback, especially from schoolchildren. I also look forward to seeing the first few cygnets fly at the end of summer - there's something very special about watching them take to the air for the first time.

What's not so great about it?

There's a lot of paperwork involved, from recording information to answering queries. We do our best to offer advice to people who e-mail us with questions, but it can build up a bit!

Are there any special qualities you need to be a swanherd?

All the swanherds I've known have a true appreciation and love of the site - it's a very special place. There are times in October, on a breezy day, when hundreds of birds take flight and it's fantastic. Or you'll see countless thousands of swirling starlings, like clouds of bees, joining each other then crashing down into the reeds. I'd also recommend thermal undies. It can get pretty bleak during winter!

What advice would you give to someone who wanted your job?

There's no better way to learn and get involved than taking on voluntary conservation work, so it's worth offering to help at nature reserves. We take on students for work experience every summer. I used to be a teacher - depending on the conservation field you're interested in, there are a lot of qualifications you can do, whether it's biology, zoology or land management.

What's the career path and salary like?

It took me 20 years to become the swanherd here, and I think I'm the only one in the country - although the Queen has a swan warden and a swan marker. Most people entering conservation do a variety of jobs. Starting salaries vary depending on your field, qualifications and experience, but £10,000 to £15,000 a year comes near it.

For details on the Abbotsbury Swannery, go to www.abbotsbury-tourism.co.uk. For more details on careers in wildlife conservation, go to Lantra, the Sector Skills Council for the Environmental and Land-based Sector, at www.lantra.co.uk; the Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management, at www.ieem.org.uk. The RSPB, at www.rspb.org.uk, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, at www.wwt.org.uk, have more information on bird conservation and ornithology