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24 December 2022

Seven swans not swimming: how bird flu came to Christmas

A family of London swans offer both warning and hope in the face of an overlooked crisis.

By India Bourke

There is much about Britain in 2022 that has been bleak. Political chaos and economic pain have drained energy and hope. But as during the height of the pandemic, nature has once again been a source of solace for many. And for me it has nested in particular on Hampstead Heath in north London, where I’ve watched a pair of swans raise their seven cygnets to downy adolescence. Tumultuous days have been steadied in enjoyment of their flirtatious courting of human admirers, and anxious thoughts calmed by their slumbers, often gathered close together on a floating square of wood.

Yet over the summer, as the cygnets’ mud-coloured plumage slowly turned snow-white, I also grew increasingly fearful for them. As I wrote in July, a variant of avian flu that emerged in China in 1996 was decimating farmers’ livelihoods and silencing our skies. Since then, and despite hundred and sixty million domestic poultry globally being killed by the virus or culled, the disease has continued to spread in both farmed and wild birds alike. From puffins to hen harriers and barnacle geese, 65 UK species have now tested positive for the deadly strain. According to Claire Smith, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “the world’s worst outbreak” is now taking hold.

By the end of November the flu had arrived on the Heath. Its first suspected victims were Wallace and Reggie, two adult swans on the Highgate ponds. “They will be missed by so many,” shared the Swans of Hampstead Heath Instagram account; a flood of replies echoing the point.

Then, on 6 December, the news I’d most dreaded arrived in my inbox from a neighbourhood group. A local volunteer had spotted two cygnets alone on Hampstead pond 1 at opposite sides, displaying symptoms of the flu. There was nothing to do except try to carry on feeding them and hope they came around.

I rushed to see if I could help. Isolated and anxious, one silvery young cygnet was cowering so close to a bank of brambles it seemed it might disappear entirely inside their thorny reach. The other was at least well enough to eat some sweetcorn I’d thrown into the water, and even seemed eerily serene in the sparkling winter sun. I hoped hard both would make it. But a few days later and pond no 1’s “seven swans a-swimming”, as the Christmas carol goes, were swimming no more: the sicker, quieter cygnet was dead.

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It is of course not just the Heath that has been hit. Across London at least 100 swans and geese have been reported dead, including Bruce, Wanstead’s rare black swan; there have been deaths in Glasgow, Poole and Dorset. Seabirds have been particularly badly affected as well, with 25 per cent of the UK’s only roseate tern colony dying this summer and 11 per cent of its great skuas wiped out. A worrying situation is developing on Islay, in the Inner Hebrides, Smith said, where over 200 Greenland barnacle geese have been found dead so far. 

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Each species matters, especially when climate change, river pollution and habitat loss are crushing Britain’s biodiversity across the board. But there is perhaps something particularly sad about birdflu’s assault on swans. Neither entirely wild nor entirely tame, these giant, ethereal creatures are familiar in a way most wild species are not. There is barely a patch of water in urban or rural Britain without a resident pair and, as a result, they have a place in our national psyche with which few birds can compete. As the naturalist and author Stephen Moss writes, their ambiguity – being both celebrated for their beauty and feared for their violence – makes them “an apt national symbol” at a time of deep anxiety about British identity on the global stage.

So if the plight of swans can cut through the noise of the news this Christmas, and help to raise awareness of the ever growing threat of bird flu, then we should seize the opportunity. For this grim outbreak is no unforeseen “Black Swan” event; its emergence and spread in factory farming’s intensive poultry system is entirely predictable – and can and must be stopped.

There are still shreds of hope. Evidence suggests that surviving poultry are building up herd immunity on farms, explained Paul Digard, chair of virology at the University of Edinburgh, and there is “some evidence” wild birds are doing likewise. 

And although its sibling succumbed to the virus, pond no 1’s other sick cygnet has since returned to the flock. Just this morning, in a fleeting few hours of golden light, I watched as the remaining six preened and dipped their heads and shook out their wings. The missing cygnet felt like both a memorial and a warning, but also a reminder that with human help – and a concerted government effort – more of Britain’s wild birds may yet pull through. As if in agreement, the entire family lifted itself off the water and ran, wings beating, into the air.

[See also: Maggie Rae: We must not drop our guard against flu]

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