One for the wing nuts

Sue Wheat marvels at a huge, ancient swannery in Dorset
Finding the Swannery at Abbotsbury in Dorset was uncannily easy. The AA had put up bright yellow signs directing us to "Baby Swans Hatching" at regular intervals for miles around. Such an official statement seemed bizarre - are we so disconnected from nature that we need signposts to direct us to every detail of rural life? But Abbotsbury Swannery is not a typical place. An outstandingly beautiful nature reserve, it is home to around 800 swans which like it so much that they never leave - unusual behaviour, as swans normally move from place to place.

The birds - known as "mute" swans despite making a variety of strange noises - live on the Fleet, a lagoon by Chesil Beach. The 18-mile beach is, for the eastern nine miles, detached from the shore of the mainland and separated from it by the Fleet - which makes a calm haven of wetlands that supports not just the swans but also a wide variety of other wildlife.

Abbotsbury Swannery is the only colony of managed swans in the world. And if they seem very much at home here, it is because they are. The swans have been on this site at least since the 11th century, when the swannery was managed by Benedictine monks. Now it is managed as part of the Ilchester estate; the swans are the only ones in the country not owned by the Queen.

We walked to the lagoon through a mass of reeds, pampas grass, bamboo, giant fuchsias and other exotic shrubs. As we approached the meadow at the head of the Fleet the scene that opened up to us seemed straight out of a wildlife film set. A mass of sleek, white-feathered bodies covered the lagoon-side, turning it a dappled grey. My two-year-old friend Patrick squealed at his first sight of a swan leading her fluffy grey cygnets. Then we saw the nests - beautifully crafted from reeds - which were scattered all over the meadow leading to the Fleet. Mothers crouched patiently over their eggs; others sat with their newly hatched offspring in the nests, keeping them warm.

Some of the swans had built their nests in secluded spots, but many others had built smack in the middle of the pathways. "It's their choice," said one of the staff, when I asked whether the tourists disturbed them. "They can build their nests wherever they like." Competition for space is fierce, however - around 300 nests are built in a space of two acres. Becoming impervious to prying human eyes may just be a necessary part of swan life.

Such a lack of shyness does mean, however, that for children Abbotsbury is a dreamland. Children and parents can follow "The Ugly Duckling Trail" and learn what life's like as a swan, and visit the Old Tithe Barn - now a children's farm. A subtropical garden gives an extra feeling of exoticism. As we left, we heard the beating of wings and looked up to see six or seven swans swooping above the reed beds, circling the meadow, then returning to skid across the water. It seemed a dramatic sort of swansong for our day out.

The Abbotsbury Swannery (01305 871130) is signposted from Abbotsbury village. Open Mar-Oct 10am-6pm (last admission 5pm). Admission: adults pounds 4.80, senior citizens pounds 3.80, children pounds 2, family ticket (two adults, two children) pounds 11. Next Friday and Saturday swans are ringed, weighed and checked in a "Great Swan Round Up" (details, 1305 760579).

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