by James Roberts
You can see the source of the Monk’s Pool from a distance, a stain of deep green bleeding out from the brown, a horse shoe indentation in the slope. Water bubbles out of the ground from a little cup sized puddle which overflows into a stream so narrow the grass obscures it for most of its short journey down this Welsh hillside. The stream reveals the poverty of the soil here, its centuries of journeying having eroded only a few inches of the turf to a bed of mudstone. Bracken and gorse carpet the hill with, here and there, the odd thorn tree, split, wind-twisted and brittle. The pool was once edged with a line of Scots Pine but the level of the water was raised in recent times, flooding the roots of most of the trees which are now bare, bleached crucifixes.
Mid winter. The pool is usually empty at this time of cold sleep. But this has been a year of anomalies and it is inhabited now by a single juvenile mute swan. A mile south the potato crop has been harvested and the sheltered fields next to the river are starting to fill up with swans, hundreds of birds, many having migrated here from as far as Scandinavia. It is an old gathering place that all the swans in the region come to. Except for the single loner fifteen hundred feet up, facing a much harsher winter.
The cob and pen arrived in early March, circling the pool over the spring passage flocks of teal and mallard, resident coots and moorhens. Small groups of Canada geese started landing soon afterwards. Almost as soon as the birds had settled the cob attacked, neck extended, head low, skidding towards them, air screaming over its wings. The geese took off, territory conceded. Later that week the swans began to build their nest inside an oval of bullrushes. Soon the pen was sitting on seven eggs while the cob defended the territory against every potential predator including the otter that started to leave its spraints on the boulders while it waited for the annual arrival of toads to their breeding ground at the pool’s shallow edges.
Six of the seven eggs hatched in early May with the first swallows arcing over the water and the sound of a pair of curlews off to the west where they were nesting near the stream. For the coming weeks the tiny cygnets would be guided around the lake by their parents, travelling single file with pen leading and cob guarding the rear unless a walker happened to stop, when the cob would paddle towards them hissing. At this time an ancient, battered old tractor started to appear by the lake, parked alongside the reed bed where the nest still held one beige egg that had not hatched. I walked up to it and an old farmer flung open the cab door. He was dressed in a wax jacket and hat that were almost rags. Inside was a sheepdog chained to the door, its teeth bared, doing its best to savage me until the farmer shouted it down. He told me that he has farmed on the hill for seventy years and this was the first time he’d ever seen swans breed on the pool.
Because they are a regular sight on urban waterways mute swans are regarded as a common bird in the UK. But the population is actually quite sparse, with only around 7000 breeding pairs. Compare this to the 100,000 pairs of mallards or the 60,000 pairs of Canada geese. An average year produces only about 3500 successfully reared cygnets. It is possible that this was the first time swans had ever bred here.
My first experience of a wild pool was near the North Midlands housing estate where I grew up. It was located behind an old priory and had once been a mill pond, the mill itself long demolished. The pool was almost identical to the Monk’s Pool in size, though instead of being surrounded by a thousand acres of heath, it was hemmed in by a similar acreage of council houses and overlooked by a twenty storey block of flats. The pond was fed by an underground spring which trickled out from a steep embankment at its north end. It was a ghost of rural life lingering in the industrial suburban spread, managing to maintain a wild community. The water was always swarming with sticklebacks in summer and we all knew that a monster pike lurked in its trenches, some of us having had the good fortune to hook it while never managing to land it. A large, bordering willow had fallen into the pond and regrown. Within a fork in its horizontal trunk was the swans’ nest.
Every summer there were cygnets on the pond, such a regular feature that I hardly noticed them. As I reached my teens deindustrialisation began and the pond mirrored the decline of its surroundings. The spring seemed to dry up for long periods and the water became stagnant, carpeted with slime that I could smell all the way from my garden. Litter started to appear, at first the odd glass bottle thrown into the water, then, as packaging plastics began to be used more frequently the surrounding trees filled up with coloured bags that draped from the branches like dead sea creatures. The swans bred less and less succesfully and eventually stopped breeding altogether, only using the pond as an occasional stop-off point. The decades old nest filled up with litter. The water is almost lifeless now, the surrounding paths strewn with smashed glass, dangerous for wildife and people. The last time I visited the area was being menaced by a lone cob which had lost its mate. It threatened anyone who passed, wings thrashing, hissing, grief transformed into aggression.
Swans are one of the heaviest of flying birds. The serene white creature that, on water, moves without moving, its neck sinuous as a river, has to batter itself aloft. It needs an enormous amount of space to do this. The Monk’s Pool is barely large enough to allow a successful take off, requiring the bird to begin its ascent at the edge of the water and to aim itself at the gaps between the fringe of trees and bushes. It takes a full ten seconds of thrashing across the water, feet scrabbling for propulsion, wingtips slapping the surface, before a few feet of altitude is attained. Once in the air it is a noisy machine, the rapid thrum of its wingbeats drowning out the surrounding birdsong. They are not skilful flyers. In the early autumn winds I watched a pair make a wide and slow circle of the hill before navigating a route to the pool. They then became stuck as they attempted to land into the wind, suspended twenty feet above the water, moving slowly backwards. In the end they gave up and turned towards the river below and shelter from the westerly. They were replaced by a lone red kite tilting, tail fanned, wings motionless as it slid through the cracks in the gale.
Throughout the summer the swans continued to patrol the pool in military formation. The pen pulled up weeds from the pool bed and dropped them onto the surface of the water for the cygnets to pick at daintily. They made continual, barely audible, whistling calls. They doubled in size every few weeks. By early July the cob had let down his guard a little and had begun to wander around the pool away from the family while the cygnets travelled in a cluster, following the pen but not closely. Then, one morning, the cob was gone. I searched for hours in the reeds and surrounding bracken for signs of predation. There were none. The pen didn’t seem too concerned, she attended to her young as normal. Swans are one of many species of bird that pair for life but, as with humans, separations occur. Guillemots have been studied closely in this regard and it has been found that most separations are due to bad parenting. In these cases the deviant bird is aggressively seen off. I’m sure this was not the case with the swans. There were no signs of aggression by the cob to its young and I never saw the pen attempt to drive off its mate. The cob just left.
Mute swans can hold their territories with incredible tenacity even when those territories are unsuitable. On the river Wye, below the road bridge leading into town a low island of reeds and hazel separates the stream into a fork. A pair of swans have nested in this place every year I have lived here. In April heavy rains begin and the Wye, being a shallow, mountain river, rises rapidly until only the tops of the hazels show, the nest drowned and destroyed, the unhatched eggs washed away. It doesn’t deter them, the next year they begin again. Only this year, in a spring of little rainfall, have they succeeded in raising young. The pair were still on their patch of river in early winter with their three juveniles in tow.
Anomalous behaviour in wild animals is not rare. Anyone who spends a lot of time observing the natural world will come across unusual behaviour. As the writer Neil Ansell states in his book “Deep Country”, watching wildlife over long periods of time is like peeling an onion, you penetrate through to layer after layer of ever more complex behaviour. Mute Swans are huge birds and voracious eaters. They can consume up to 8 pounds of vegetation each day. Monk’s Pool is less than an acre in area. It is my guess that the cob left its territory so the young had an ample supply of food for the rest of their dependent stage.
“The Six Swans” is a well known oral story with variants across Germany and Scandinavia. In the tale a king gets lost hunting in the forest and meets a witch who will only agree to show him the way back to his castle if he takes her daughter as wife. The king reluctantly agrees and marries the daughter on his return. But, though his bride is beautiful, he does not trust her. He removes his children from the castle and takes them to a place where they will be hidden from their stepmother. The new queen grows suspicious and eventually finds the hidden place. When she visits it the six boys, believing her to be their father arriving, run out to greet her. The witch stepmother then turns each of them into swans. But she does not discover the seventh child, the boys’ sister. The abandoned sister searches the wild forest until she finds her swan brothers who are cursed to only be able to throw off their feathers and become human for a few minutes each day. The only way she can give them back their forms permanently is to make no sound for six years and to weave each brother a shirt of starwort. This she promises to do. The girl is then discovered in the forest by another king who falls in love with her and they marry. But the girl has inherited another wicked guardian and each time she bears a child the old woman steals it and marks the young mother’s lips with blood, accusing her of devouring her own child. The girl is mute and cannot defend herself but the king does not believe his mother. Eventually after their third child receives the same fate the king can defend his wife no more and she is condemned to burn at the stake. But by now six years has passed and she has woven the shirts of starwort except for a single sleeve. As the pyre is about to be set alight six swans swoop down to her and she throws a shirt over each one. The swans are transformed back to her brothers, one with a white wing in place of an arm. The sister can finally tell the truth and the king’s mother is forced to reveal where the children are hidden, after which she is burned to ashes.
The story was first written down by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It was one of their favourite tales because of its theme of family fidelity. The detail that seems most strange about the story is the single white wing left in place of the brother’s arm. I think that it is a reminder of the faithfulness of creatures, that the surrounding presence of wild beings teaches and inspires us and should not be forgotten or dismissed.
The moult began in late summer, feathers rimming the pool forming a random, pale tideline. The cygnets were by now almost the size of the pen, though they still followed their mother everywhere. Their infant calls remained, the continual shy “seep” that now seemed incongrous with their size. Weeks later, with the first heavy dew settling and the ends of the bracken fronds curling and brown, the pen began flying lessons, spreading and beating its wings in front of them and then launching itself across the pool. The cygnets began to rear out of the water and test the strength of their own wings.
On a late September morning I arrived just after dawn to see the pen and only four cygnets. A few days later, there were two. Then, on a day when the first mist blurred the whole valley, I looked over a silver oval of water now empty of swans. I walked down to the nest, still perfectly intact inside its moat, with the single unhatched egg still undisturbed. I collected a few white feathers from among the reeds, while a pair of ravens flipped and circled over the row of drowned pines. And then I heard, close by, the call of a cygnet and looked up to see it bending and poking among the bullrushes. One had stayed. Over the following weeks the pen returned many times to try to guide its youngster away from the pool. Sometimes it stayed for a day, other times three or four but each time the pen left and the gaps between visits became longer. The juvenile refused to leave.
For a whole month storms have been raging, gale force winds ravaging the peaks, ripping weak branches from the thorn trees and scouring the dead bracken. The upland is scattered with sulphur tufts and scarlet caps like tiny fires amongst the star moss and sedge. A flock of fieldfares cleared the last berries from the neglected hedges but now they have moved on, leaving the hill to a pair of red kites who will hunt here all winter. A few crows and ravens hang out in the tree skeletons, slinging insults. Occasionally I spot a kestrel hovering above the scrub where the curlews nested. The hill is almost deserted. The Monk’s Pool is a cold eye peering out of the barren landscape, the young swan its only inhabitant, now struggling with the conditions.
A week ago the temperature dropped and the ground froze hard. The pool became a giant cobweb of ice. The sun rises almost from the south now, beginning its shallow arc clearing the long line of whaleback mountains for the few hours before dark. In the red, dawn light I could see the long necked silhouette of the swan out in the middle of the pool. It struggled to get though the ice, trying to climb out, falling through, trying to peck its way forwards. Then it opened its wings and I saw how stunted they were, unable to lift it even a few inches from the surface. Its voice had finally changed. While it stuggled it made the low, plaintive, and rarely heard call of the mature swan.
After the short cold snap another series of more violent storms blew in. Howling wind and torrential rain lasted all week and I did not make it onto the hill until this morning. Under the shut sky the pool was edged with grey foam, the water still cresting, the reeds slapped flat. The swan was not there. Heading back to the road I saw two ravens flip-diving in the last of the wind eddies and went to stand under them. As I turned for home I noticed something pale amongst the sedge. It was a patch of skin the size of my palm, coated with white feathers.
As well as swan stories, there are many Welsh oral tales involving upland pools. They are the places where magical creatures are conjured from the water to spend a time living with mortals. But the beautiful beings are always in some way, injured by life. They return to their pools, dive down, and are never seen again.
James Roberts co-edits Zoomorphic.