David Randall: So elegant, so refined – and vicious as hell

Swans are magnificent but don't get too close

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If swans were a political party, they'd be in a bit of trouble this weekend. Just when everything was going swimmingly, and everyone thought swans represented placid, hard-working couples battling against diminishing habitats and lowering watercourses – the squeezed middle of the aquatic world, if you like – along comes some rank bad publicity.

A swan in Northamptonshire has lately been photographed charging at and attacking canoeists on the Grand Union Canal. It's not going down well, this aggressive attitude. Typical, elitist behaviour by one of nature's aristocrats, say some critics. So much for "we're all in this waterway together", say others. And now he has been named – Tyson, after the famously forceful pugilist – and shamed, in the Daily Mail, no less.

And, were swans a political party, the image-remakers would now move in. Statements of regret would be issued. "Totally out of character... don't know what came over him... been under a lot of pressure lately... just a rogue swan... no evidence others acted in same regrettable way." And, lightly sedated, Tyson would be filmed gliding serenely along some bucolic river in Middle England, and posed for pictures with a comradely wing around a beaming canoeist ("It's all water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned," says Mr Canoe.)

But swans are not a political party. They are wild animals, albeit ones whose favoured waters tend to be the ones adjacent to where we live and play. This is why they are the feral creatures I know best. My seaside shack sits beside a large saline lagoon in West Sussex. It, the adjoining nature reserve, and the waters that run through it, are rife with swans. I watch them a lot. I see them on and off the water, in the air, mating, and parenting. And so I know that Tyson, while not typical, is no lone rogue either.

The common portrayal of swans draws on their stately progress across the water, the effort of locomotion entirely unseen as their great paddles of feet agitate them forwards. Every so often, for reasons I've never been able to fathom, they get bored with one stretch of water, or exhaust its easiest food pickings, and decide to suddenly shift a few hundred yards. This distance is not arbitrary, nor could it be much shorter, for it takes a great deal of flapping of 5ft wings to get their 33lb bodies airborne, and a runway of considerable length is needed for splashdown.

Fun as this is to watch, and touching as it is to see parenting swans shepherding their ugly ducklings around, it is when spying them mate that you get a more rounded view of their characters. For a lurid mixture of tendresse and violence, it has, partner-eating female spiders apart, few equals. There's some sidling up to one another, and synchronised swimming side by side. The sap is rising. Then, without warning, he will swim round and mount her, grasp her upper neck in his beak, and, holding her underwater, mate. Unlike the human male, it is afterwards he will show consideration. They neck, rubbing their long throats together, and they'll face each other, their heads bent inwards and touching to form a heart shape. Those Valentine cards poses are not entirely made up.

Not surprisingly, given the pleasures of the lifelong pair bond, it is the unpartnered males – and the widowed – who get a bit narky. Britain's local papers are full of Tysons: the Cam's Mr Asbo bothering boaters in 2009; the feisty Charlie of Solent Business Park in Hampshire; bad-tempered Hannibal on Pembroke's Castle Pond; and the male ambushing canoeists in Chelmsford, Essex – one of several understandably protective of their mate and cygnets when people get too close. They are magnificent creatures. But we should be as wary of them, as they generally are of us. We should give them, in that misused word, respect.

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