The Yorkshire Vet, Julian Norton is part of a swan SWAT team ready to treat an injured bird - when they catch it

“Are you nearby?” Tracy asked down my phone.

The swan SWAT team were gathered on the riverbank at Wetherby to try and catch the patient.
The swan SWAT team were gathered on the riverbank at Wetherby to try and catch the patient.

I was nearby, on my way back to the practice to cover afternoon surgery.

I was pleased to be back to normal veterinary work, after a trip to London the previous day. Channel 5 was celebrating its 25th birthday and I had been fortunate to have been invited along.

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It was a fantastic evening with lots of highlights. One was standing in the queue to get in next to Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in Blackadder. I resisted the temptation to tell him, “I had a cunning plan”.

“There is a swan with a bad leg by the river in town. Everyone says you are the expert at catching swans,” our practice manager continued. “And Lucy is very keen to help.”

“I’ll call in to the practice on my way past to pick up some equipment and Lucy,” I replied, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”

It was true, I had previous experience with catching and treating swans. Whether I was an expert was another matter. Famously, one of the first was injured, limping and forlorn. She’d appeared at the nearest house to the lake where she lived with her mate.

The male had knocked on the door with his beak, alerting the humans to the problem. In the dark and under the light of a torch, the dynamic nurse who was helping me jumped into the lake (to where the pair had escaped) and grabbed the swan.

Later that evening, we removed a nasty hook which was lodged in the leg.

On another occasion, I’d arrived to find the patient sitting on a small island in the middle of a lake.

A neighbour cheerfully volunteered to clamber into a rowing boat to reach the island, capture the swan and return with it, for me to examine.

I can’t remember exactly how this worked out, but eventually I did examine and treat the bird, which had a nasty carbuncle on its webbed foot.

Today, Lucy and I gathered our equipment and headed to the banks of the River Wharfe.

Towels, gloves and even one of those sturdy shopping bags which claim to last a lifetime.

They are good for shopping and excellent for enveloping the wings and feet of an ill-tempered swan. We didn’t have a spare sock, which was a shame because a large sock is perfect to pop over the head of a swan, to keep it calm and secure the beak.

The river bank, on a warm sunny spring day, was a joyful scene.

People sat on benches with ice creams and dogs. Toddlers splashed in frog wellies in the shallow water. There was even a sandy beach!

And a lady endlessly and effortlessly fed bread to a swan to persuade it to stay put for the arrival of the emergency team.

The swan team; not the swat team.

At first, it was hard to ascertain the full extent of the problem and the large, white bird seemed quite happy, gorging itself on bread.

The frog-welly-wearing toddler came to help, bending over like toddlers do. “Hello dog,” he said loudly to the swan.

His mum explained that he really, really liked dogs. As the toddler woofed at the swan, it got to its feet and waddled off, like a duck.

The left leg was functional but hobbled weakly. I couldn’t see any fishing line, nor an obvious hook, but we still needed to capture the patient.

Previous experience had taught me that waterfowl have the edge over humans when they get onto the water. There was no time to lose.

Lucy unloaded all our equipment and we both stared at the swan, perilously close to the water’s edge.

“Lucy,” I said. “I have a cunningly plan…”