A prestigious private school has stirred uproar by removing a couple of nesting swans from a riverbank beauty spot on its grounds, just days before up to seven eggs were set to hatch.
Winchester College which has the motto ‘Manners Maketh Man’ says it was granted a Natural England licence to move the birds after the male swan repeatedly attacked members of the public.
But local residents believe that the action was taken to safeguard pupils from the school’s rowing club who were allegedly targeted by the protective swan as they launched their boats.
The College which has boarding fees of £45,936-a-year has insisted the swans were safely removed by professionals to an ‘approved alternative habitat’ at an undisclosed location.
But a notice erected at the former nesting spot by the College to explain its actions made no mention of what had happened to the eggs in the nest.
The College did not respond to requests for comment from MailOnline.
The incident has sparked fury on social media in the Hampshire town with furious locals accusing the College of cruelty and acting ‘immorally’ in its own interests.
Some accused the College of ‘murder’ after speculating that the eggs in the nest may have been destroyed to prevent them hatching.
The swans had nested for several years at the same spot just 50 metres from the College’s rowing club on the Itchen Navigation section of the River Itchen in Winchester.
Past pupils at the College – who are known as Old Wykehamnists after the school’s 14th century founder William Of Wykeham – include current Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Retired print business owner Barrie Hammond, 74, said: ‘The two swans were beautiful creatures and nested there for quite a few years.
‘I live nearby and used to feed them and their cygnets after they hatched. The male swan was obviously protective of its young, but I never saw it being aggressive.
‘People like to swim in the water and go kayaking in the summer. You just avoid the swans when they are around the nest.
‘I have a kayak and the swans have never bothered me when I am on the water.
‘Someone had actually put a netting screen around the nest so they did not get disturbed by dogs being walked on the path.
‘I saw them on the nest a couple of weeks ago when I was walking down there, but this week I went back and the whole nest had disappeared.
‘The College told someone that they had been removed, but they would not say where they had been taken.
‘I am convinced it is because they did not want the swan to be interfering with their pupils rowing in the river.
‘There is a feeling here that the College thinks it can get away with doing what it likes.
‘It is annoying because the swans have been there for a long time and people used to look forward to seeing the cygnets.’
Esme Holding, a retired specialist nurse who also lives nearby, said: ‘I think the college is acting immorally. It is shocking.
‘The whole nest has gone. The eggs were half-way through their incubation and were due to hatch in another week and a half.
‘The swan is only defensive when his pen (female swan) is on the nest. The college says the swan is being aggressive to the public. They put up notices last year saying there was a dangerous swan when actually he wasn’t.
‘He only gets aggressive when the nest is approached and is just doing what a swan does.
‘The nest is on college land. They could have simply closed the footpath. The boys at the boathouse could carry their boats further downstream.
‘The boys go past the nest with their paddles. The swan will go to the boathouse and wait for the boats and try to bite their oars, saying “Go away, this is where my babies are”.
‘He is not vicious he is defending his nest. Things are much worse when the College boys come back.’
Ms Holding said she had complained last year after witnessing a College Don taunting the cob (male swan) with his bicycle, leaving it with an injured wing.
The behaviour of the swan prompted the College’s river keeper Mark Sankey to put up signs to warn people of its ‘aggressive nature’ and urging them to exercise ‘extreme caution’.
A sign explaining the removal of the swans this week, insists that College ‘cares deeply about its custodianship of the natural environment’.
It says: ‘In recent months, members of the public have reported incidents of concern regarding the swan (and its pen) nesting near the public footbath on the Itchen Navigation.
‘The incidents have not only involved distress to the swan, but also anxiety to members of the public which have been threatened or attacked by it, and their frequency has proved too difficult to control.
‘The College has consulted closely with Natural England. All swans remain protected by the Crown and Her Majesty’s Swan Marker has also been involved.
‘The expert advice given to the College was that the best outcome for the swan as well as for members of the public would be its safe relocation (along with its pen).
‘The operation has pw been successful completed by professional and both swans have been moved under licence to an approved alternative habitat.
‘Behaviours of the kind exhibited by the swan in this instance are uncharacteristic and rare.
‘The College will be keen to do all it can under expert advice to support all forms of wildlife on its land and apologises to any members of the public who have been concerned about the swan’s behaviour and welfare.’
But one resident said on social media: ‘It makes me really sad. We just bulldoze everything for our convenience. Swans in a nature reserve getting booted out for the benefit of humans. Some irony.’
Another added: ‘This same pair nested in exactly the same place last year and successfully raised six cygnets.
‘The college notice posted claimed it was necessary because some walkers had claimed anxiety from the aggressive nature of the swans.
‘In my view, the nervous anxiety-ridden walkers should take heed of the warning signs and take one of the alternative routes. It’s more likely that the College wanted to get their boats out.’
The Environmental Protection Act make it illegal to intentionally take, damage or destroy a wild bird’s nest while it’s being used or built.
It is also against the law to possess, control or transport live or dead wild birds, or parts of them, or their eggs. But under certain circumstances, particularly where health and safety is an issue, landowners can apply for a licence to circumvent the rules.
Keith Betton, county recorder and chairman of the Hampshire Ornithological Society, said swan eggs could be moved safely during incubation, as long as they were kept warm.
But he added: ‘It’s very sad that people are viewing swans as a problem. Swans are part of the natural habitat and they’ve been here far longer than we have.
‘Certainly, if they were on my land, I’d be doing my best to divert the public rather than move the swans to keep them safe.’