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Swan Sanctuary Code of Practice
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Code of Practice





Since the mid l97O’s there has been a dramatic rise in the public interest in the veterinary treatment and rehabilitation of wildlife casualties, and subsequently a parallel increase in the number of "Wildlife Hospitals" and individual "carers" to complement this interest.

However, it has become evident that there is something of a secondary wave of "casual" rescuers and carers who, by either circumstances or design, cannot or do not demonstrate and or advocate a standard of practice that should be considered a basic requirement for the treatment of wildlife casualties in this "day and age".

In an attempt to alleviate some of the problems indicated. "The Wildlife Hospitals Trust" produced a voluntary "Code of Practice" for wildlife cares that was sanctioned by the "Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons" and this has proved a valuable broad base for people to work to.

Some species encountered have such individual requirements, that in order to attain an optimum level of care, specialisation and species restriction must be considered the most beneficial approach to adopt: as in the case of the Swan Sanctuary".

Need for a "SWAN CODE"

"The Swan Sanctuary" is the UK’s largest and most experienced facility specifically equipped and catering for the rescue, treatment and rehabilitation of swans. We are the only purpose built complex that can provide "state of the art"

Veterinary facilities on site 24 hours a day and our hospital based rescue team demonstrates a very high degree of expertise backed up with a full range of rescue equipment, including powered inflatable boats and veterinary ambulances. WE SINCERELY BELIEVE THAT "THE SWAN SANCTUARY" IS AT THE FOREFRONT IN ALL ASPECTS OF SWAN CARE.

Although we are very happy to provide encouragement and support to those who show a genuine desire and commitment to help swans in distress, the Sanctuary feels that there is a need to maintain an acceptable standard of practice. We would wish to see the following suggestions endorsed by those agencies relevant, after initial consultation and agreement between ourselves and "The Queen's Swan Marker".

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Most rescues will be instigated as a result of an initial telephone call from the public or others. To ensure that such rescues are carried out efficiently and effectively, with minimum "fuss" and/or stress to the bird(s) involved, the following suggested telephone procedure should be adopted:

  1. Answer telephone as quickly as possible (ideally before the fourth ring) to make sure caller does not hang up in desperation.
  2. Clearly identify your organisation to the caller and ascertain if it a "rescue call"
  3. Ask caller for a contact telephone number; this can be especially important if the caller is in a public telephone box with limited monies: and read the number back to the caller to quality.
  4. Enquire of FULL details of perceived problem, and decide if attendance is warranted.
  5. If NO.. always ensure that the caller understands the reasons for your decision, and invite them to call back if the situation changes or if the caller is still concerned.
  6. If YES.. make sure you take full location details of bird(s) and how long since last seen. Ask for the nearest distinguishing landmark (public houses are always a good reference point).
  7. Ask caller about "the lay of the land" i.e. deep water, high revetments etc., as certain situations may require specialist equipment or skills to effect a successful rescue.
  8. Ask caller for a contact telephone number to use up until the rescue team arrives, and ask them to telephone you if the situation changes in the meantime.
  9. Finally, read back the details to the caller (all details should be written down as you receive them and advise caller as to what is going to happen and when. Call them back if you need to liase with rescue team(s) and or other agencies first.

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When attending a rescue situation, initial assessment is a priority. In most cases there will be someone waiting at the scene (often the person who reported the incident); ask for a history of what occurred, and what the person's main concerns are. Look around to make sure that the area and the situation that you face are safe, and take appropriate actions to maintain the same.

IT MUST BE REMEMBERED THAT SWANS OFTEN GET INTO PROBLEMS AROUND HIGH VOLTAGE CABLES. RAILWAY LINES AND MOTORWAYS - All rescuers should make sure that they know all the relevant safety procedures and who to contact in such an event.

Water based rescues are ALWAYS potentially dangerous, and boat users etc should be fully competent and properly equipped. NON SWIMMERS SHOULD NOT VENTURE ONTO OR INTO WATER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, and should wear a life jacket when working bankside.

IF IN DOUBT regards ANY rescue attempt. .. summon assistance and do NOT be tempted to "give it a go" for fear of "losing face". . you may lose much more!

Rescuers should not use any specialist equipment. i.e. climbing gear. unless properly trained to do so.

As with all wildlife casualties, the objective is to rescue the swan(s) as quickly as possible - whilst `causing the minimum amount of distress to the birds concerned - and the following points should be borne in mind.

Resist the temptation to use ancillary tools to capture swans whenever possible i.e. Swan hooks and nets - manual control of the bird(s) are the least stressful and have less potential to cause injury to the casualty. Also many swans are extremely wary of poles/rods and will be forewarned of your intentions to catch them.

Do NOT chase mobile birds around - the stress and exhaustive effects of such actions could lead to the death of an already sick bird - rather GUIDE the swan gently into a situation where it can be captured easily - a favoured approach on open water is to gradually `push' the bird on with a boat, encouraging it to take refuge in a reed bed etc.

Initial control of a swan can be safely effected by catching hold of the birds neck - WITH DUE CONCERN FOR POSSIBLE NECK INJURIES APPARENT OR OTHERWISE. - Then transfer control of the bird to its wings, holding them close to the swan body. Do not lift the bird by its neck or legs unless forced to by local conditions.


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It is true to say that of all potential wildlife patients, Mute swans (Cygnus olor) are the most amenable to motorised transportation. However, a few simple guidelines are recommended.

The mobility of swans should be restricted during transportation; they should ideally be unable to stand or "flap", and this can be easily achieved. If both legs are uninjured, they should be lifted back and ABOVE the swan's tail, and with the "ankles" crossed. Tie the "ankles firmly using a wide tape with an element of "give in it (a ladies nylon stocking is ideally suited to this purpose). The bird should then be placed in a large shopping bag or similar with the neck protruding and the bag closed over the swan's back. (A sack with one corner cut out will make a good makeshift bag).

The bird being fed through the hole.

In the vehicle, the bird should be placed facing forwards or backwards - this is to allow the bird to use its head and neck to counter balance the effects of acceleration and braking. The bird should also be prevented from falling sideways by using pillows or a rolled up blanket to form a "nest"

If the swan is seriously ill or injured, it may not need to be "tied". Be aware of what can happen if a casualty suddenly "comes round" during transit, and decides to join you on the drivers seat whilst on the motorway. It is in fact a requirement of law to make sure that animals are physically separated from the driver of a motor vehicle.

Birds in a "poor" state may need to be covered to prevent excess heat loss, and if collapsed the neck should be extended to facilitate a clear airway.

Similarly, although a fresh airflow should be provided during transit it would be a grave mistake to allow a casualty bird to become chilled by excessive draught.

DO NOT SMOKE, PLAY LOUD MUSIC, OR CARRY DOGS OR OTHER ANIMALS WHEN TRANSPORTING WILDLIFE - unless the casualties can be contained in isolation, i.e. behind a fixed sealed bulkhead (this does not mean the boot space of a car). Also do not allow small children to travel with swans, they will NOT keep their fingers to themselves and a sick bird does not need to be poked about.

Be aware of leaking exhaust pipes and over full fuel tanks both of which can cause deadly fumes to enter the vehicle (usually at the back where your casually will be).

Do not carry any noxious or volatile substance in such a manner as may result in contamination of your patient. Refrain from the use of aerosol deodorants and insecticides during transit or immediately before placing a bird in the vehicle.

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Any swan that is showing signs of sickness and/or debility that has been taken into care should receive proper veterinary attention as soon as possible. All but the minor injuries should be subject to veterinary treatment, and unless you can be certain that the slight injury obvious to the "lay" person is the only one. I.e. the bird was seen caught by one small fishing hook in the leg - then examination of the bird by trained veterinary personnel is still advised.

Minor wounds resulting from simple hook removals "in the field" - along with other lesser cuts and grazes - should always be thoroughly cleaned with a dilution of "Betadine" or "Hibiscrub" etc. before re- releasing the bird. Again, get your vet to show you what to do.

When a swan is rescued with fishing line trailing from its mouth, and from down the throat, and resistance to the gentlest of pulls is felt, then the bird MUST be x-rayed to see if a hook or other tackle is lodged in the oesophagus. In this case, surgical intervention by a qualified veterinary surgeon is essential.

A swan that "crash lands" on a highway etc but shows no apparent signs of injury or distress should be taken into "quiet care "for 24 hours so as to rule out concussion or post traumatic shock. "The Swan Sanctuary" rescue teams have often been called out to attend birds that were put straight back onto water by well meaning motorists and passers by who felt the bird "looked fine" after a crash.

For all more complex treatment regimes, follow instructions given by a qualified vet.

Swans are normally gregarious birds, and during time of stress exhibit a sense of reassurance and security when within "sight and sound" of their own kind. These birds should not be held in isolation and or in the facilities available at a mixed veterinary practice, but should be transported to a specialist unit as soon as practicable. (The Swan Sanctuary can advise and assist where necessary.)

It is too often the case that both "lay" rescuers or indeed "vets" inexperienced in swan care, tend to assume any "sickly swan is suffering from lead poisoning, and embark on a course of treatment that is by nature not without risk. If anyone, veterinary surgeon or otherwise is not fully conversant in the subject of heavy metal poisoning and subsequent treatment - then again" The Swan Sanctuary" will be only too happy to advise and assist at any time.

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Due to logistical constraints, not everyone wishing to care for sick/injured swans will be able to maintain an exhaustive hospital "set up". However, such constraints should be recognised by any potential carer s. and the following suggested standards should be met and adhered to, whatever scale of any individual unit.

Indoor and outdoor holding facilities should be available to carers at all times, each being used whenever appropriate to the casualty bird concerned. Any bird fit enough to be in an outdoor enclosure will require enough room not to feel constricted and have the opportunity to behave as "normally" as possible.

Experience has shown that an enclosure approximately 9mtrs x 6mtrs is an optimum area that will cater for most situations likely to be encountered. Even if suddenly presented with a family group e.g. two parent birds and half a dozen or more cygnets.

This size enclosure will accommodate a pond that should he of the "sunken" variety and will have a surface water area of approximately 3mtrs x 3mtrs. The depth of the pond should ideally reach 1mtr when filled, and this will allow adult

Swans to "up end" to their limit and give Youngsters an adequate training ground.

At least one side of the pond should be sloped at such an angle that swans and humans can easily walk in and out when the pond is partly or wholly drained. Remember that some birds will be a bit unsteady even on level ground. If swans have to struggle and flap to exit a drained pond, they may well damage wings and/or rip out claws.

Swans like all water fowl are "messy' birds, and it is vital that good drainage and cleansing facilities are installed. Drainage should be effected from the lowest point of the pond, and should be "non-return "either to the pond drained or other ponds on site cross contamination is always the biggest potential threat in any hospital"

An adequate supply of fresh water should be available for all filling and cleansing requirements, and should include a stand pipe and hose, that provides a good water pressure.

A shelter should be provided in each enclosure, and "bedding" of clean barley straw put down: not wood shavings as some swans have shown a tendency to eat these, with disastrous results. Also do not use hay for bedding, as this is often very dusty and can aggravate any respiratory problems.

If the site is fox and dog proof, the enclosure need only have a perimeter fence some 1mtr in height, as the birds will not ordinarily be able to fly out of such a confined space. Although Whoopers and Bewicks can be a bit more "flighty" than the Mutes can. Obviously any fencing should be safe and kept in good condition. Do not use mesh large enough for birds {especially curious cygnets) to get their heads through. In addition, NEVER top fences with barbed wire or other such materials.

Outdoor "hospital" enclosures or pens as described above should be surfaced with concrete throughout, and if slabs are used, then the gaps between should be "pointed". There are a lot of misconceptions relating to the surface that water birds require to walk on. Much of the literature available will dissuade the use of concrete and cement, but grass and soil paddocks are impossible to clean and sterilise, and good hospital practice will eliminate any predisposition to "bumblefoot" or other staphylococci infections.

The enclosure should be cleaned of droppings and spilled food and hosed down at leased once daily: more often as necessary, and the pond must be drained and hosed down at least every 48 hours: preferably daily.

Between patients, the whole of the enclosure and pond areas should receive thorough cleaning and disinfecting; remembering to rinse completely before refilling the pond.

Indoor holding facilities should not be cramped or claustrophobic, and must not be draughty. The building or room should be described as "sound and secure", and must be capable of maintaining an ambient climate in relation to heating and ventilation; summer or winter.

ON NO ACCOUNT should paraffin heaters be used, they are potentially dangerous in themselves, and the flumes generated can easily kill birds.

It is often the case that swans requiring indoor confinement will need to be held in a restricted space for their own benefit and something along the lines of a child’s playpen is about the right dimensions for most instances.

A well maintained stock of clean newspapers, blankets and a few' pillows or cushions will be required, along with plenty of black sacks: bin liners

Plastic washing up bowls, towels, rubber gloves and plastic aprons are also invaluable to the swan carer and no unit will ever find that it is over stocked with any of these items.

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The term rehabilitation is often heard but less often understood. Rehabilitating any wild creature does not simply mean "letting it go", but rather is a methodical way of checking that the patient stands the best possible chance of re integrating with the wild population, and has a high potential for survival.

Although swans when re released are not the kind of birds that will rush off into the undergrowth, or fly' away into the distance never to be seen again, there is of course no excuse for "trail and error" methods to be employed when liberating patients.

A sound knowledge of "normal" swan behaviour and abilities is an essential requirement of any person who is responsible for pronouncing a bird fit for release. The swan must demonstrate that it is able to feed, swim, walk, and preen "normally. It must inter act with other swans in an appropriate way for it's age and sexual status, the bird should be fully flighted (unless in moult) and should be maintaining a body weight corresponding to is size etc.

A fit bird should be fully waterproof and if recovering from a non-waterproof condition, must have demonstrated the ability to keep itself waterproofed whilst kept in an outdoor enclosure for a minimum of one week. Small areas of neck plumage absent are ok i.e. postoperative sites. However, any substantial feather loss in this area will mean retaining the bird until re grown.

The "bonding" of family groups grows stronger and stronger in the first few months of a cygnet’s life; and the time differential between taking a cygnet into care and returning it to its family can vary enormously. However as a guide; any cygnet away from the family group for more than five days, will have to be reared in captivity and undergo protracted rehabilitation.

NEVER keep a cygnet on its own.. if needs be. pass the bird onto a unit that has others of the same age (approx.), not to do so would be cruel!

When an adult swan is judged fit for release, it should ideally be returned to the water from which it originated; unless of course it would be dangerous to do so. If this is not possible, place the bird in the nearest non breeding flock situation to its own water, make certain that it has settled in before leaving and arrange for someone to "keep an eye out" for several days to ensure the swan has adjusted well, If the swan leaves the flock its original home water should be checked out, in case the bird has returned there to face the danger that you had previously identified.

Releases should be arranged for early morning, which gives the bird most of the daylight hours available to re settle. Postpone releases if there are severe weather conditions or other temporary local factors: re an angling match is taking place.

NEVER release young birds in isolation.

NEVER release a disabled bird; if non flyer, partially sighted, or amputee

NEVER release birds on new swan free waters without frill investigation and consultation.

NEVER release birds on private waters without permission.

NEVER release birds onto a site where take off and/or landing is difficult or impossible.

NEVER release birds on waters with flight paths in or out adjacent to power lines (pylons) and/or motorways.

NEVER release where there is insufficient natural food supply.

NEVER release if the slightest doubt enters your mind.

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Leg ringing under the auspices of the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) has long been recognised as a valuable tool in the study of bird migrations and breeding success. It is also true to say that the welfare aspects of catching, handling, and the fitting of the rings has often been the cause of much concern by many individuals and animal welfare groups alike.

Seminally the fitting of large plastic "Darvik" rings to mute swans as initiated by the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology has also aided the recognition at a distance of individuals of the species.

Primarily set up as an integral part of the Institutes studies into lead poisoning in mute swans (Cygnus olor). the need for these rings is now seemingly defunct; apart from a residual convenience factor. and their use should be discontinued on this count alone However, what is more worrying to the rescue and veterinary staff at the Sanctuary, is the apparent degeneration of the materials used in the construction of the Darvik rings; and the increase in injuries that are caused to birds when the rings partially "shatter". It is apparent that the rings become extremely hard and brittle with age.

With a little more investigation into our hospital records, and in the due process of time, we feel that it may well become evident that not only should "Darvik" ringing be discontinued, but that all birds hospitalised should have the old rings removed as a matter of routine.

With regards to the BTO rings, injuries caused by them are not nearly as frequent; as long as the original fitting was correct, and the ring remains undistorted due to "snagging" or other factors.

Mute swans are generally regarded as "semi wild" and non migratory birds, and in some (or should it be said all) cases are owned property. Therefore, it is suggested that the BTO be asked to qualify the need for continuing to ring mute swans "in the field".

It is of course without question that. being able to positively identify any individual swan that has previously undergone veterinary treatment is of great use, as many birds undergo repeated rescue/treatments during their

(hopefully) lengthy lifetime. It is our suggestion that ring procedures be limited to pre release from hospitalisation or other "necessary' confinement and handling in the case of mute swans.

To lesson the possibility of injury from solid rings even further, perhaps we should be looking towards the use of numbered cable ties as fitted to DOE registered captive raptors (birds of prey). Alternatively, research into a rubber based "Darvik" type ring. Finally as the technology' becomes cheaper and more refined, we may even begin to look at utilising sub cutaneous transponders (microchips under the skin) as is currently the case with many mammal species.

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