The River Lea suffered from a major oil spill a few months ago, affecting hundreds of our wild birds. Thanks to The Swan Sanctuary, many of these birds were rescued. We asked volunteer Gill Walker to tell us more.
What is The Swan Sanctuary?
The Swan Sanctuary is a working veterinary hospital set up to provide treatment for sick and injured swans and other waterbirds. It began in the early 1980s when Dot Beeson was treating sick and injured swans in her home. Very soon she sold her house to finance a bigger, purpose designed site, and when this was outgrown, the Sanctuary moved to the present 20 acre site in Shepperton. The Sanctuary is open to receive casualties 24/7 and treats swans from all over the UK, and occasionally from abroad.
What can rescued birds find there?
The Sanctuary has a large Thames fed lake for permanent residents, which is also frequented by wild birds that come for the free buffet. There are smaller woodland lakes for long term patients and pairs or families that need their own territory while recovering from treatment. There's a fully fenced nursery pond, which is where all the post-oil Tottenham swans regain their waterproofing prior to return, although it’s real purpose is for the many orphaned cygnets that grow up in the Sanctuary. In the large barn there are pens for birds receiving treatment, and a small swimming pool where those well enough bathe each day under supervision, while their deep straw filled pens are cleaned. There is a fully equipped operating theatre and a medical room, and intensive care pens.
What happens when a swan arrives?
The outside post-treatment pens are all fully enclosed for protection from predators, each has its own pool, and day long access to another barn area for warmth and comfortable rest. This is where treated swans are housed with other swans from their area and observed in preparation for return to the wild. When a swan arrives for treatment he receives a hospital identification tag, this allows recording of his place of origin and his medical treatment. The aim is always to return the swan or other bird to a safe place as close as possible to where he was rescued. If a bird is left with a permanent disability, or is of a non-native species that cannot be released back to the wild, they receive lifetime care on one of the natural lakes.
How is the Sanctuary run and funded?
The Sanctuary treats many hundreds of swans and other waterbirds every year, and receives no government funding. It is run entirely on donations from the public and corporate sponsorship. As a working hospital it’s not open to the public, although in the summer it’s possible to book a guided tour for adults, usually undertaken by Dot herself.
There is no set charge for this, but obviously a generous donation is welcome.
How did you get involved?
I became involved in 1984 as I met Dot having rescued a swan dying of lead poisoning from Eagle Pond in Wanstead. With others I formed part of a rescue team covering east and north London, Essex and Hertfordshire. I’ve had many breaks, but rescuing is addictive, and now I’m retired it’s a full time occupation!
What do volunteers do?
The Sanctuary has volunteer rescue teams in various areas, and one of our tasks is to monitor our local swan populations. Many things we deal with come from these observations, but often we are alerted to problems by calls from the public, sometimes passed to us by other organisations. Where possible we deal with problems in situ, if we cannot we transport casualties to the Sanctuary for treatment. We’re responsible for tracking our swan's progress, and arranging return once rehabilitated.
Sanctuary volunteers do not receive any financial assistance, the Sanctuary could not afford to pay us ! We provide our own fuel and other essentials which includes grain and pellets, bread (essential for a rescue as some swans don't know what pellets are!), Ikea bags (the swans sit in these) swan hooks and nets etc. A good supply of towels is needed, but these are usually donated.
Are you looking for new volunteers?
If anyone would like to volunteer to help, even as a 'swan watcher' monitoring the swans on the navigation between Tottenham Lock and Springfield Marina, please get in touch (put for my attention in the subject line) via the Sanctuary website at at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tell us more about the problems with the Lea
Oil and other pollution on the Lea Navigation at the Pymmes Brook inflow has been a problem for over thirty years, and probably longer. Periodically there is a major incident, as in February this year. We were alerted to oiled birds by Environment Agency staff, but over following days received calls from other agencies and concerned members of the public, as contaminated swans turned up as far downriver as Old Ford Lock. In this event more than forty birds required rescue, and in the December 2017 event seventy swans required inpatient treatment. These were still in the Sanctuary when the February event occurred, or casualties then would have been higher.
Are the birds back?
All of the swans and coots rescued following the February oil spill have now been returned to the area. Those that were rescued on the reservoirs were released there, others on the Lea backwaters. We must remember though that these figures are rescued birds. Many others, especially small well camouflaged birds like coot and moorhen, mallards and tufted ducks, will have died unseen. I estimate the deaths from the February spill to have been many hundreds.
How does the oil pollution affect water birds?
The swans on the Lea and many other waterways are almost constantly exposed to a small amount of oil and other contaminants, and can often look a bit grubby. But swans reluctant to get on the water and quick to get off the water, and obsessively preening, are likely to be waterlogged. Once on the water if they have to paddle furiously to keep afloat, or the water is consistently 'over their back' giving the appearance that their neck and body are disconnected, things are serious. Water-logging occurs when contamination strips the natural waterproofing from feathers allowing them to soak up water like a sponge. Even when temperatures are in double figures without the insulation of their feathers, birds can die of hypothermia. Most contaminants are also corrosive and can seriously damage the bird’s digestive system and eyes.
What message would you like to pass on?
Almost all pollution on the rivers enters via the road drains or ‘misconnections’, which is where the plumbing of a property is wrongly set up to allow waste water (for example from a washing machine or toilet) to enter the surface drainage system, which flows directly in to brooks and ultimately the river. Many people do not realise that if they pour waste oil or cooking fat down a street drain, it WILL end up in the river. This is a really important message to spread about, and getting people to dispose of waste oils, chemicals and fats sensibly will save much suffering and many deaths. But we also need the responsible agencies to take action to stop this chronic problem, and we are working with other organisations like Lea Boaters Collective and Thames 21, to bring about change.
Swan Sanctuary Volunteer