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

I don’t remember a time in my life when I was not afraid of swans. It’s not that I think a swan could kill me, but I’m pretty sure it could dislocate my shoulder. Or at the very least peck me somewhere nasty. All I know is this: I don’t want to find out what they’re capable of. For me, I imagine it feels much like any other phobia must feel for other people: a perfectly natural and rational reaction to something completely terrifying.

Being afraid of swans was not really an issue in my life until I started swimming outdoors during the lockdowns last year. My swan anxiety is well publicised among the group I swim with. Everyone is cautious around nesting birds between March and June, but someone will come and swim next to me if there’s a swan in the vicinity all year round. I’m also a figure of well-intentioned ridicule. For my birthday, friends put on a surprise rendition of Swan Lake in a shallow stretch of the Thames in Surrey, complete with tutus, white face paint and feathered headbands.

Lately, I’ve had a few hairy moments. There are “friendly” swans at one lake we go to and, as they glide over, my breathing turns shallow and I can feel myself physically shutting down. A while ago, I realised that my jitters risk exposing me to other dangers: swimming out further than I want to, or being longer in the cold than is sensible, or having a panic attack in the water. It also occurred to me that I’m exposing others to unnecessary stress: their job is to keep themselves safe in the water, not to look after me. I needed to get this phobia under control.

My fear – like many fears – is not completely groundless. As a child, I worshipped my grandad, a gentle but strong man who had been a bantamweight boxer during his time in the RAF. When I was about five or six, we were walking alongside a riverbank in a family group. Out of nowhere my grandad, just ahead of us, was accosted by a swan protecting her babies. He must have brushed past the nest. All the adults around me laughed it off, as he was never in any real danger, but I had seen the shock flash in his eyes: this creature was not to be messed with. The thing I remember most is the effect of its gigantic, deafening wing span. It was monstrous. The message for me was clear: avoid the wrath of the swan. You cannot fight it and you cannot outrun it. The swan didn’t get him on that day. But it could get me now.

The only way I could think of overcoming my kyknophobia responsibly – seeing as there is no official “Embrace the Swan” treatment programme – was to enlist the help of Steve Knight, who runs the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, Surrey, near the stretches of the Thames where I swim regularly. Knight’s late partner, Dot Beeson, started rescuing swans and tending to them in her garden in the early 1980s. She sold her house to finance the first national swan sanctuary on a hectare of land in Egham, eventually moving operations to Shepperton in 2005. Beeson was awarded an MBE for her services to swan rescue and rehabilitation in 2015. Since she died of cancer last year, at the age of 72, Knight has taken on her mantle as (my name for him) “the swan whisperer”.

We cannot meet at the Swan Sanctuary itself because of recent precautions around avian flu; dozens of swans died after an outbreak in Stratford-upon-Avon in early November. So we meet instead at Truss’s Island, Staines, a place where flocks of swans regularly gather. We both know some people who swim here, but this is exactly the kind of swim spot I would usually avoid. I take my swim buddy John for moral support (and because, in any case, none of us ever swim alone). Knight is sympathetic about my phobia but he also thinks I am silly: “There are far greater dangers in the water than the swans.” He’s right, of course. More importantly, the swans themselves are in far greater danger than I am. The sanctuary has recently taken in several swans with sewage poisoning. If it’s not sewage then it’s diesel. And now another round of this bird flu. I kind of knew all this, but I had blocked out the real impact. Hearing it face to face, from someone who devotes their time to saving wildlife, finally makes me take in the horror of it. The actual plight of these creatures is far more 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

However, the reality is that I am still terrified. Armed with a loaf of bread, Knight guides me gently towards a group of what must be two dozen swans. He recommends feeding swans at this time of year as their natural food is scarce during winter. But you should always feed them in the water or near the water’s edge so that they’re not tempted to roam towards traffic or dogs. In my mind, there are hundreds of swans, maybe millions, and I am Tippi Hedren in The Birds. But there is something calming about Knight’s presence and, when one swan doesn’t want to move out of his way, he calmly grasps it by the neck like a python and moves it firmly aside.

All the swans are brushing up against us, snorting like pigs (“They are just saying hello,” Knight says). I realise to my amazement that they are not crazed maniacs – even though they are quite hungry and really want the bread – and they are not actually attacking us. After a while, I do almost get pecked – by accident, I think – but even that is not as frightening as I thought it would be. I can feel an undercurrent of panic from a part of my brain I can’t quite switch off: “DANGER. SWANS.” But I can also see the truth of the situation: I am not in physical danger. I am hugely inspired and impressed by how calm Knight is. I don’t want to get too Freudian about this, but I realise later that he is not unlike my grandad in his manner. Something shifts.

I remember the words of my swim friend Debbie, an occupational therapist who is not remotely afraid of swans, despite having had a few incidents that involved “circling” during nesting season. “I’m really frightened of a lot of animals. But with birds, I know they are more afraid of us than we are of them. You just have to do everything you can to make sure they don’t think you’re a threat. Don’t look at the cygnets. Don’t make eye contact.” Knight echoes this: “Stay calm. Be relaxed. Breathe. Don’t move away too quickly because you mark yourself out as prey.”

Good advice. No one wants to feel like prey. Ahead of me, I see John walk carefully into the water, surrounded by long white necks. He splashes very slightly as he launches off and a swan backs away, frightened. They really are the prey and not us. Astonishingly, after the Hitchcockian immersion therapy, it feels like I really believe this. My fear has not lifted. But it has muted into watchful respect. Now I just have to figure out what to do about seagulls.

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