For more than a century there have been black swans living, breeding, and indeed paddling up and down the small stream, known as both The Brook or Dawlish Water, that runs through the centre of Dawlish and down to the nearby seashore.
The swans have become so inextricably entwined with the seaside resort that over fifty years ago they became the unofficial iconic emblem of the town and continue to be so to this day.
Unlike Mute Swans that have been in Britain for centuries, and were recorded as belonging to the monarchy as early as 1186, the Black Swan is a relatively recent introduction. It is native to the West coast of Australia which back in the 17th century was known as New Holland.
The Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh and his crew are believed to be the first Europeans to have spotted Black Swans when navigating up an estuary they named Swan River. This tidal river runs through what is now the metropolitan area of Perth and the swans can be found along the shoreline, and are now widespread throughout much of Australia. Incidentally, the black swan is the official bird emblem of the State of Western Australia.
The Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)
Swans are quite unusual in the bird kingdom as they are one of the few species that are monogamous and tend to pair for life. The black swans, however, differ from other breeds of swans in a number of ways.
They are capable of producing multiple clutches of eggs each year unlike the Bewick or Mute swans and the male not only helps with the building of the nest but also spends more time sitting on it than the female. Despite this apparent devotion, the female black swan is the most likely of all the swan species to be unfaithful with over 15% of her offspring being the result of her infidelity!
Introduction of the Black Swans to Dawlish
At the turn of the 20th century, a local by the name of John Nash emigrated to New Zealand but kept close ties with his home town and returned to Dawlish on a number of occasions.
In 1906 on one of his visits he presented the town with a gift of black swans. It’s not clear what his reasons were for doing this, but, it has been suggested that he wished to give Dawlish a gift that would make it stand out from other seaside towns in the area. A little something to make the town unique and, back in the Edwardian era, black swans most assuredly were an oddity and talking point in England.
At some point between the two World Wars the Black Swans died out, but, the reason for this has been lost through time. However, in the late 1940s, a Captain Pitman who was a game warden in Uganda gave Dawlish a pair of swans in memory of his parents.
The Black Swans on Dawlish Water today
Since the reintroduction of the Black Swans after World War II they have become a tourist attraction and are an important feature of the small town. Today, along with numerous other species of decorative waterfowl that grace the Brook they can often be seen sitting on nests in the middle of the small stream or paddling gracefully through the water.
In recent years there have, unfortunately, been a number of fatal dog attacks on the swans leading to a reduction in their numbers. It has to be hoped that the iconic Black Swans of Dawlish will be able to breed without further disruption so that they can be enjoyed by future generations!
POWDERHAM CASTLE – The family home of the Courtney’s family, Earls of Devon. The fortified manor house sits within extensive parkland and is open to the public from the end of March through to end of October. Entrance to the castle is by guided tour only.
HALDON FOREST – Located in the Haldon Hills there are numerous footpaths and bicycle trails for all abilities. There’s also the Haldon Belvedere, an attractive 18th-century folly and a scenic walk leading to the Haldon Obelisk, near Mamhead, which encompasses magnificent views across the Exe Estuary.
KENN CHURCH – An attractive 14th-century church that has been lovingly restored in the Gothic Revival Style. The churchyard is also home to an impressive yew tree with an enormous girth that is one of the oldest surviving in Britain.