Mute cry in the wilderness: Nature is cruel to the Highland swan. Jim Crumley observes one pair's struggle for survival

Share
Related Topics
THE LAST of the summer's tourism glides, chatters, giggles, screams and barks to a halt, a few cars and caravans at a time, in a small lay-by at the north end of Loch Lubnaig, the first loch in Scotland's Southern Highlands. A pair of mute swans sit on their own reflections a hundred yards offshore. The sun glitters on the dark shallows, and in that vivid early evening light the birds look preposterously pretty.

Mostly, the tourists who pause here are still acclimatising to the Highlands, which began six uncompromising miles to the south. It is a heady enough brew - a good tight pass, clamorous waterfalls, loch-hugging mountains, forests and deluges of midges - even without swans.

The unaccustomed eye, pausing Thermos in hand, will invest the swans with qualities of serenity, grace, poise, an ornament of nature set in this landscape almost unnecessarily, like an extravagant jewel in the navel of an exquisite belly dancer.

But mine is an accustomed eye when it comes to swans, and that pair of mutes in particular. Even by the standards of swans - few tribes of nature are credited and hamstrung with more superlatives - these are extraordinary birds. Tourism, if it considers them at all, might find them curiously aloof. They do not home in on the tossed left-over crumbs of the B & B's packed lunch. If anything, they drift further out into the deeper water darkly shadowed by the mountains.

There are two reasons for such behaviour. One is the nature of their environment. The wildness has infected them so that they behave more like the whooper swans of Iceland than most people's perception of mutes in Britain.

The other reason is that their whole year has just been robbed of purpose. It was a small tragedy by nature's standards, a death which removed from the surface of the loch and my own wild year the small grey apostrophe of the last cygnet. The birds, if they are not mourning (and who really knows who is not a swan?) are certainly moping. Their year has been a measured, stoic struggle. It always is, such are the forces of nature which habitually conspire to thwart their life cycle.

In the past five years these birds have built 19 nests and raised only eight cygnets to fledgling. Yet even in the worst of the Highland winter they rarely leave their home water for more than a few days, if at all. Whatever it is that keeps them here, whatever it was that first lured swans here (20 years ago at least to my certain knowledge, possibly much longer), it was not the prospect of an idyllic lifestyle.

It is hard to ignore the possibility that here are the descendants of a long line of mountain swans, accustomed to, and possibly dependent on the uncompromising natural regime, in the same way that an Icelandic whooper is.

This year's saga is typical. It began, as always, with the floods.

At the end of every winter the river which feeds the north end of the loch swells with the rains and the snow-melt of a dozen mountains. The loch's level rises. Three or four feet in a day is common in the worst weather, and the swans swim between tree tops and over fences. Land on which they might choose to build a nest is obliterated. So for that matter is anything to build it with. So they wait, and - while their lowland kin on a farmyard pond not 40 miles away have courted, built, mated and laid - they go on waiting.

By late April, by which time the lowland mutes are perhaps a week from hatching, the Highland rains have eased, a scrap of land by the riverbank has emerged, the swans have scraped together a pile of grass.

The pen climbs aboard and sits. She has begun to lay, but the floods fall as fast as they rose. The attempt is doomed. Two days later she walks away from two eggs, and the nest is now quarter of a mile from the water's edge. The process is repeated on a second nest with the same result, except that this time she laid three eggs. When she abandoned a third nest and two more eggs, a bit of human intervention seemed worth a try. It was time to bring the raft into play.

'Raft' is grand flattery for the hastily cobbled together floating platform which a lochside local and I had first boated out into the edge of a reed-bed last year to try and entice the swans on to a flood-proof nest site.

Then their third nest was washed out of the reed-bed and on to the shore by late floods; they finally reared two young after the nest had been manhandled back to the raft and tied on to it.

So, as one more nesting season disaster threatened, the remains of this year's second nest were hauled aboard the raft, along with the two eggs the pen had abandoned. By mid-June she had hatched them both, and left one more infertile egg in the nest, which she and her mate had rebuilt on the raft.

But mid-June is too late for optimism among new-born cygnets and swan-watchers. Statistically, late hatches fare poorly. The first cygnet died within two weeks, unseen by anyone. Gone without trace, but it had never worn that sheen of robust health I had seen on the lowland brood - all seven of them tumbled from their small island nest on a farmyard pond in the first week of May.

Now the second Loch Lubnaig cygnet has gone, and the adults mope away the leisurely days of late summer, but still they show no inclination to seek out easier climes.

Instead they demonstrate limitless powers of patience, endurance and resilience in the face of such consistent adversity and loss. In the process they have made gibberish out of field guide statistics. These intone for example that eggs hatch after 35 days (and sure enough in ideal conditions they often do), but they are silent on how an extreme perversity of nature might affect matters. In my own book, Waters of the Wild Swan, I recorded the climax of one particularly odd nesting season: 'On the next day, the forty-first on her third nest, June 25, I sat by the dyke at noon, put the glasses on the nest, watched her stand, and there at her foot saw a single stumbling gray fluffball, complete with black bill, black eyes and black feet. The pen had laid her first egg on her first nest on April 15. Now, two nests, an unknown number of eggs and seventy-one days later, she had one cygnet . . .' It was enough for her, and she took to the water at once with the cygnet. The cob, however, sat on four more eggs for 10 days more, taking the total to 81, before abandoning them. It was October of that year before I found the pyre of grey feathers which denoted the cygnet's death, killed or scavenged by a fox. As well, perhaps, that the cygnet died on a glorious autumn day rather than suffer wretchedly through the long, cold and wet Highland winter. It is not a season for nature's weaklings.

So now my Highland swans are cygnet-less again, but a mile down the loch is a swimming symbol of hope. Two young mute swans, slim and pale-beaked, keep each other company and grow strong through the late summer. They are last year's young, and they have never left their home water; no instinct has urged them south to join lowland swans on gentler waters.

They are brother and sister, living just beyond their parents' territory. Assuming there is another suitable site on the loch (there are several, and heaven knows how many unsuitable ones) might they eventually mate, or - separately or together - take over their parents' site and spend their entire life here? They are isolated from other swan populations, pure-bred mountain swans, and as unconfiding in people as their parents.

Last year, when they were growing up with their parents, all four birds would come to a call and take food from me. Now, though, the same call produces no response from the young birds. That's good.

They will need all the resources of wildness they can muster if they are to lay claim in time to their grim inheritance.

Jim Crumley is the author of 'Waters of the Wild Swan' (Cape, pounds 14.99) and will feature in a BBC 1 film in November, 'Addicted to Swans'.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Leonard Nimroy: Spock made me feel like it was good to be the weird kid

Matthew James
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?