A 200-year-old tradition of swans ringing bells for food at an historic palace is in jeopardy – after the male bird dumped his partner.
Mute swans have been using their beaks to pull a rope to ask for bread at Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset, since the 1800s.
The world-famous birds are trained to sound a bell which prompts their caretakers to throw food from a window.
They draw thousands of visitors every year to a moat around the palace, the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells.
But the ancient tradition is now under threat after the latest birds to live on the water split up.
The birds – Bertie and Vicky – were only introduced in June after one of the previous swans died and his partner rehomed.
Bertie and Vicky had been struggling with their bell ringing training after they were intimidated by a group of resident ducks.
Now Bertie has flown the coup and vanished altogether leaving Vicky all alone – and the bells silent.
A palace spokesman said: “We can confirm that one of our swans is missing, the male one took to his wings and has taken flight. We have just his female companion now.
“We are hopeful that in fact he will decide the moat is an attractive place to live and return for good. But they are wild swans, they are free to come and go as they please.
“We do care for them, feed them and look after them. But these ones came from a sanctuary and are wild.
”Obviously we would like them to stay but if one wants to fly off we can’t stop them. However the female is here still, so we hope her mate will return.”
Swans were first taught to ring a bell for food by the daughter of Bishop Hervey in the 1870s – a tradition which has continued ever since.
The living quarters at the palace include a 700-year-old medieval gatehouse overlooking a moat which surrounds the official residence.
The caretaker’s sitting room sits just above the water line and outside of the mullioned window is a battered old bell attached to a rope.
Every time a swan is hungry it swims over to the wall where the bell hangs and it tugs on the rope and moments later someone throws out some food.
From 2006 two swans Ricky and Glinty were incumbents at the moat after they were given to the palace by the Queen.
But Ricky died and Glinty was given a new home at a swan reserve and Bertie and Vicky were brought in to replace them.
Palace caretakers Paul and Carol Arblasta later said the new couple couldn’t get the hang of the ‘ring once for food’ system.
They were struggling with the training and were being out-muscled by a group of bolshy ducks – who had also learned to ring the bell.
Even when Bertie and Vicky were able to ring the bells the ducks would swim over and chase them off- scoffing all the grub.
Paul said: ”These swans are very shy. At first, they didn’t even come to the window for a week and a half.
”We tried to train them to ring the bell but the ducks were ringing it instead.
”The swans were left looking bemused cocking their heads, amazed at what they were seeing.”
To train the swans bread is tied in clumps to the rope which attracts them to nibble at it and pull it off, causing the bell to ring.
Gradually, less and less bread is placed on the rope as the swans quickly understand that food will follow after the pull the rope and sound the bell.
Bertie first flew off a week ago and is believed to have made one last visit to his mate before deciding to abandon her for good.
Paul said if Bertie failed to return, another swan from a sanctuary would be introduced to stop the female from becoming too lonely.
In the mid-90s, police in Wells found a swan near their police station and released it on to the Somerset Levels.
They later discovered it was the sole ‘widowed’ swan that had been left alone on the moat after the death of its mate.
This incident was later immortalized in the 2007 film Hot Fuzz, starring Simon Pegg.
The longest swan pair to have stayed on the moat are believed to be Glinty and Ricky, who were resident for around 15 years.
Ricky then sadly died and Glinty was given a new home at a swan reserve.
Conveyancer Marianne Smith, a solicitor in Wells, has started an unofficial ‘swan watch’ with her colleagues.
She said: “We’ve been hoping the separation isn’t permanent.”