Man nor swans can live by bread alone

Steven Fairbrother

Following a bit of a media spat between different groups involved in protecting wild birds recently we decided to issue a statement clarifying our position on what can be a surprisingly controversial topic – whether to feed bread to swans.

U.S President James A Garfield once said that "Man cannot live by bread alone…" and the same can be said of swans and other wild birds. President Garfield’s full statement was "Man cannot live on bread alone. He needs peanut butter." When it comes to swans, the answer could well be that in addition to bread they need a ‘varied diet including grains, veg.' Granted - it’s not quite as punchy or amusing as the POTUS’ saying, but it is clear that swans need a varied diet.

Some would argue that people shouldn’t feed bread and many parks and other venues have ‘banned’ visitors from feeding bread to swans and ducks. At Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust we would rather provide people with advice on what else they can feed than impose a ban.

In these days of social media and quick fire headlines some folk are all too quick to build any difference of opinion into a full blow fall out but when I looked at the various statements issued on the topic of feeding bread to wild swans it was clear that there was actually a lot of consensus.

Sunset Swan at Attenborough Tim Sexton

Tim Sexton

In essence, bread can provide a useful boost for birds which are struggling to find natural food, especially in very cold spells or other periods when natural food is scarce. When fed as part of a varied diet bread does birds no harm. However, mouldy bread is a real no no; and if more bread is used than the birds can eat it can attract rats and exacerbate water quality issues. 

We advise that bread is not the best option when feeding swans or ducks. Far better to feed a mix of foods including grain, fruit and veg. Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust have never been in the ‘banning’ brigade, but at our Attenborough Nature Reserve, where generations of children have derived immeasurable pleasure from feeding the ducks, swans and geese, we advise people that we’d prefer them to feed grain rather than bread.

Some would have us ban feeding altogether because it leads to high levels of droppings and some birds can be boisterous when establishing the pecking order but we’d be loath to introduce a ban. We also recognise that feeding ducks swans and gees is important for people as well as the birds themselves. For many children, feed the birds can be the first real connection they have with wildlife.

Some groups feel that outright bread bans have led people to stop feeding birds altogether. Whilst a ban might help reduce the mess I don’t think such measures are helpful in the longer term. Far better, I would suggest, to provide advice on what people should feed rather than introduce draconian measures and risk breaking people’s bond with nature.

Mallard ducks in the snow at Attenborough by Kevin Gray

Kevin Gray