Escape your comfort zone: I love swimming outdoors – so I decided to confront my deep fear of swans | Wildlife

I don’t bear in mind a time in my life when I was not afraid of swans. It’s not that I assume a swan may kill me, however I’m fairly certain it may dislocate my shoulder. Or on the very least peck me someplace nasty. All I know is that this: I don’t need to discover out what they’re succesful of. For me, I think about it feels very like every other phobia should really feel for different individuals: a superbly pure and rational response to one thing fully terrifying.

Being afraid of swans was probably not a difficulty in my life till I began swimming outdoors through the lockdowns final yr. My swan anxiousness is properly publicised among the many group I swim with. Everyone seems to be cautious round nesting birds between March and June, however somebody will come and swim subsequent to me if there’s a swan within the neighborhood all yr spherical. I’m additionally a determine of well-intentioned ridicule. For my birthday, associates placed on a shock rendition of Swan Lake in a shallow stretch of the Thames in Surrey, full with tutus, white face paint and feathered headbands.

Recently, I’ve had just a few bushy moments. There are “pleasant” swans at one lake we go to and, as they glide over, my respiration turns shallow and I can really feel myself bodily shutting down. Some time in the past, I realised that my jitters threat exposing me to different risks: swimming out additional than I need to, or being longer within the chilly than is wise, or having a panic assault within the water. It additionally occurred to me that I’m exposing others to pointless stress: their job is to hold themselves secure within the water, not to take care of me. I wanted to get this phobia underneath management.

My fear – like many fears – shouldn’t be fully groundless. As a toddler, I worshipped my grandad, a delicate however robust man who had been a bantamweight boxer throughout his time within the RAF. When I was about 5 or 6, we have been strolling alongside a riverbank in a household group. Out of nowhere my grandad, simply forward of us, was accosted by a swan defending her infants. He should have brushed previous the nest. All of the adults round me laughed it off, as he was by no means in any actual hazard, however I had seen the shock flash in his eyes: this creature was not to be messed with. The factor I bear in mind most is the impact of its gigantic, deafening wing span. It was monstrous. The message for me was clear: keep away from the wrath of the swan. You can not struggle it and you can’t outrun it. The swan didn’t get him on that day. But it surely may get me now.

The one means I may assume of overcoming my kyknophobia responsibly – seeing as there isn’t a official “Embrace the Swan” remedy programme – was to enlist the assistance of Steve Knight, who runs the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, Surrey, close to the stretches of the Thames the place I swim often. Knight’s late companion, Dot Beeson, began rescuing swans and tending to them in her backyard within the early Eighties. She offered her home to finance the primary nationwide swan sanctuary on a hectare of land in Egham, finally transferring operations to Shepperton in 2005. Beeson was awarded an MBE for her companies to swan rescue and rehabilitation in 2015. Since she died of most cancers final yr, on the age of 72, Knight has taken on her mantle as (my identify for him) “the swan whisperer”.

We can not meet on the Swan Sanctuary itself as a result of of latest precautions round avian flu; dozens of swans died after an outbreak in Stratford-upon-Avon in early November. So we meet as a substitute at Truss’s Island, Staines, a spot the place flocks of swans often collect. We each know some individuals who swim right here, however that is precisely the sort of swim spot I would often keep away from. I take my swim buddy John for ethical assist (and since, in any case, none of us ever swim alone). Knight is sympathetic about my phobia however he additionally thinks I am foolish: “There are far higher risks within the water than the swans.” He’s proper, of course. Extra importantly, the swans themselves are in far higher hazard than I am. The sanctuary has lately taken in a number of swans with sewage poisoning. If it’s not sewage then it’s diesel. And now one other spherical of this fowl flu. I form of knew all this, however I had blocked out the true affect. Listening to it face to face, from somebody who devotes their time to saving wildlife, lastly makes me take within the horror of it. The precise plight of these creatures is much extra profound than my imaginary one.

‘I am Tippi Hedren in The Birds ... ’: swans on Truss’s Island, west London.
‘I am Tippi Hedren in The Birds … ’: swans on Truss’s Island, west London. {Photograph}: David Levene/The Guardian

Nevertheless, the truth is that I am nonetheless terrified. Armed with a loaf of bread, Knight guides me gently in the direction of a gaggle of what have to be two dozen swans. He recommends feeding swans right now of yr as their pure meals is scarce throughout winter. However it is best to all the time feed them within the water or close to the water’s edge so that they’re not tempted to roam in the direction of visitors or canines. In my thoughts, there are tons of of swans, perhaps hundreds of thousands, and I am Tippi Hedren in The Birds. However there’s something calming about Knight’s presence and, when one swan doesn’t need to transfer out of his means, he calmly grasps it by the neck like a python and strikes it firmly apart.

All of the swans are brushing up in opposition to us, snorting like pigs (“They’re simply saying good day,” Knight says). I realise to my amazement that they don’t seem to be crazed maniacs – regardless that they’re fairly hungry and actually need the bread – and they don’t seem to be truly attacking us. After some time, I do nearly get pecked – accidentally, I assume – however even that isn’t as horrifying as I thought it will be. I can really feel an undercurrent of panic from a component of my mind I can’t fairly change off: “DANGER. SWANS.” However I can even see the reality of the state of affairs: I am not in bodily hazard. I am massively impressed and impressed by how calm Knight is. I don’t need to get too Freudian about this, however I realise later that he’s not not like my grandad in his method. One thing shifts.

I bear in mind the phrases of my swim good friend Debbie, an occupational therapist who shouldn’t be remotely afraid of swans, regardless of having had just a few incidents that concerned “circling” throughout nesting season. “I’m actually frightened of so much of animals. However with birds, I know they’re extra afraid of us than we’re of them. You simply have to do every part you’ll be able to to be certain that they don’t assume you’re a menace. Don’t have a look at the cygnets. Don’t make eye contact.” Knight echoes this: “Keep calm. Be relaxed. Breathe. Don’t transfer away too rapidly since you mark your self out as prey.”

Good recommendation. Nobody desires to really feel like prey. Forward of me, I see John stroll rigorously into the water, surrounded by lengthy white necks. He splashes very barely as he launches off and a swan backs away, frightened. They are surely the prey and never us. Astonishingly, after the Hitchcockian immersion remedy, it appears like I actually consider this. My fear has not lifted. But it surely has muted into watchful respect. Now I simply have to work out what to do about seagulls.

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