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Bird flu and Skipton's stately swans

Friday 24 February 2006

Countryside commentator John Sheard admits to total confusion over the bird flu vaccination debate but worries about the future prospects for Skipton's burgeoning swan population

FIRST, a confession that will shock many readers: unlike millions of Britons, I have eaten swan. What's more, I did so legally even though every child in the country knows that swans belong to the Queen and cannot be munched without royal approval.

It happened at the very first summer ball at York University back in the mid-1960s. Anxious to put one over on their lofty and ancient rivals in Oxbridge, the newly-arrived York students laid on a buffet fit for kings - literally. Because it took place in the medieval King's Manor, York, where Henry V111 and other monarchs lodged when up North - and no doubt tucked in to River Ouse swans.

The bright young students at York used this history as a bargaining chip when they approached the royal authorities and asked for permission to immolate one of Her Majesty's birds - and were somewhat surprised to get that permission.

But, if I remember correctly, it was for just one swan and it had to be obtained from a special supplier. Now one bird, however plump, did not go far with several hundred people but I was one of a few alleged VIPs who were invited to have a nibble. And, frankly, I was disappointed: about as good as turkey, nowhere near as tasty as goose.

Skipton swan - safe, we hope
Skipton swan - safe, we hope

I raise the subject in this rather roundabout way because, this week, I have become extremely anxious about the future prospects of a large number of swans which are very important to me and to the people of Skipton: the various families of these stately birds which live on the Leeds-Liverpool canal.

Just this week, I counted no fewer than nine of them near Aireville Park - and they were not playing happy families. This is the time of the year, you see, when the older pair which dominate the rich pickings in the centre of Skipton drive off last year's cygnets to make way for the coming brood. And it is not a pretty sight.

My family have observed this annual punch-up for years but this week, I fell to wondering if this year could be the last. The reason for my concern is, of course, avian flu but, more so, the possibility of yet another gigantic Euro muddle in the making.

As ever, France, this time with backing from Holland, won EU approval to go ahead with plans to vaccinate poultry against the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu which has now arrived in Europe carried by migrating birds.

As ever, Britain opposed the French proposal because, say our "experts", vaccination would make it impossible to detect a real outbreak of the killer disease if it were to arrive on our poultry farms. Trouble is, these are by-and-large the same experts who ignored pleas for foot-and-mouth vaccination five years ago and slaughtered almost ten million cows and sheep.

In many a long year, I have never read so much conflicting advice given by so-called experts. Even government scientists and vets have contradicted each other. And I would bet that we have in fact decided against vaccination because it would be too expensive, so the decision was probably made, as ever, by the Treasury rather than Defra.

Across the Channel, French "experts" are saying that avian flu is now endemic in Europe anyhow, so we might as well vaccinate. But the French are the biggest poultry producer in the EU and, as they have proved time and time again, they will sell their neighbours down the river any time one of their farmers faces losing a single CAP Euro.

Closer to home, what is worrying me about the Skipton swans is that they are already entertaining visitors. Every spring, the canal plays host to wild geese passing through. This year, a pair of fish-eating goosanders have appeared. They originate from Scandinavia and bird flu is known to affect migrating birds from the Baltic.

Now I would happily shoot the goosanders, for they slaughter fish stocks, but if someone were to raise a shotgun to the Skipton swans, I would be heart-broken, along with hundreds of visitors, because these majestic birds have become a tourist attraction, along with another group that can regularly be seen gliding gracefully along the River Aire through Gargrave.

However, our experts assure me that it is highly unlikely that we will have a major outbreak of avian flu here; just this week, nine swans - including one from Thirsk - that were feared to have contracted the virus tested negative. If we do, they say, adequate precautions are in place (meaning, of course, mass culls). I hope and pray that they are right. But these assurances come from Defra so I am taking the only precaution I can think of: my fingers are firmly crossed!

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