I’m Fran Swan, one of the women at the centre of the Loder/police/sewage story

Photo by Paddy Marshall

I was brought up in Kent and we moved to the countryside when I was about 11. One of my first memories is of dragging a dead blackbird back through the snow on my sledge to give it a burial in the garden, tears streaming down my face.

I used to walk for miles and hours with my dog and had a shocking find one day which I have never forgotten. The dog raced off towards something in a far off tree. I am short-sighted so couldn’t see, but belted after her. As I got closer, the horror of the sight appalled me. Twenty dead foxes were hanging from a tree. Nearby, rows of shot crows were tied to a fence. The land I was walking on belonged to a local estate and this was clearly a gamekeeper’s management tactic to protect their game. I ran back home in a state of outrage and probably expected my Mum and Dad to do something about it. This was in the early sixties and I’ve never forgotten that image.

And I know this sort of thing still goes on today. Recently, it was revealed that Dorset is one of the worst counties for the illegal killing of birds of prey. (That was part of the question I wanted to put to my MP, Chris Loder, at the now infamous meeting! See end of the article.)

Nowadays, I still feel the same about slaughtered wild animals, here and abroad. The badger cull has deeply incensed and saddened me.

I left home to go to university then moved to London, eventually beginning a 35 year career in teaching; initially in secondary schools, teaching science, and then moving into primary education which I found more flexible and fun, engaging with young minds. As often as I could, I would bring environmental issues into a topic, always getting an enthusiastic reception. The up-and-coming generations are more aware and open to change and we owe it to them to be ready to adapt, even if it’s uncomfortable.

My degree was in biological sciences and the modules which really captured me were Ecology and Animal Behaviour. For one of my projects, I had a goldfish in my room for months, training it to distinguish between colours and shapes. After the project ended, I took it to my parents’ house and released it into their large pond. It was obviously happy there as it had very distinctive colouration and, for years, the pond was filled with its offspring. I often wonder if it passed on its newly-found knowledge of shapes and colours down the generations! Unlikely, I suppose, because it wasn’t that useful for the fish and the original subject only learnt the routine in order to be rewarded with food!

I always enjoy observing nature. Whether it be bird or invertebrate, cow behaviour or plant growth. My latest find was a wonderful delicate wasp spider egg sac hanging from the blades of a large grass in my garden and I am waiting, watching and hoping it makes it through the winter to release all the hundreds of spiderlings inside. Certain Facebook groups are brilliant for sharing photos of invertebrate finds and I learn all the time.

I grow some vegetables and we harvest random salad leaves all year round from the old greenhouse. When we moved the greenhouse a couple of years ago, I got the shock of my life as a huge toad emerged vertically from the soil inside. I gently set the creature up outside under a classy shelter … the busted dome of an old chiminea! Then a mole decided there may be tasty pickings or warmer earth inside; it tickled me to see the gorgeous dark earth mounds which appeared daily before the mole eventually moved on – so, no problem. My mother used to shove prickly cuttings from rose bushes down the mole mounds as she’d heard that if the mole came up and spiked its super-sensitive nose, it would die. I would go around removing them all when she wasn’t looking. Don’t think she ever twigged, or I would have known about it as she was very vocal!

I wish people would just learn to live with nature and not try to control it so intently. Look at the mess our environment is in.

Thinking about the River Lim and its terrible ecological status – pretty much dead apparently – I recall another project I carried out on a stream in Kent in the early 70s, logging the invertebrate species in different parts of the stream. The diversity was truly magnificent, both in numbers and species. My favourite was the caddis fly with its wonderful aquatic cocoons made of tiny pieces of sediment material. My garage was my temporary lab and I remember running from it in horror when I focused the microscope on the head of a dragonfly nymph. I have always been a bit of a screamer and the appearance of this huge alien-looking creature with its mega eyes caused me to overreact big time! Now I adore the macro shots which some brilliant photographers post on the invertebrate sites. The detail and colours thrill me.

Recalling the health of that Kentish stream then, compared with the River Lim now, appals me.

I have total respect for the hard-working, knowledgeable and tenacious River Lim Action Group and all they are doing to find out why it is in this impverished state, to monitor it regularly and to find a way forward to restore it. This has to happen for all rivers and seas. I won’t get side tracked into the actions of the water companies, but they have so much to answer for. The government, too, of course.

I’ve always seen myself as an involved citizen and have attended many marches – for teachers’ pay and conditions, the poll tax, stop the war, European Union … and I believe in people speaking out freely for their beliefs and where they see injustices being perpetrated. I was always an active member of the main teaching union and at this time of turmoil see the need for working people to stick together.

I was secretary to an allotment society for many years and pushed against the old scorched earth ways – double digging, wrecking the structure and integrity of the soil and its microorganisms, liberal lime spreading, and the scattering of slug pellets; and I managed to encourage naturalised areas and corridors for wildlife.

I was also involved in a campaign to save a local green area, the Rec, from being taken over for more cemetery space. Currently, I am in discussion with Tesco about a significant grassy area they own: hard strim and mow rather than management as a wild flower/plant area. That’s unresolved at the moment but I’m hopeful as Devon has a sound policy: Life on the Verge, to encourage sanctuaries for wildflowers, pollinating insects, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.

I was bemused to think that the police thought it necessary to come and check out my “intentions” with regard to attending my MP Chris Loder’s public meeting at Chideock. I sent my question* to Mr Loder through the right channels and received a reply from him asking me to name the villager who had invited me, saying “ I will come back to you and see what we can do”.

Then the police visited.

The irony! I’ve just completed my third stint on jury service! Does this mean I won’t be called again?

I have written regularly to my MP about various issues; sometimes I get a reply. I am not aware of any regular surgeries he holds, but sometimes see his postings on Twitter or small write-ups of his activities in the local papers. He seems to like one-off visits to specific places, like prep schools or a Rifles Regiment in Estonia. Perhaps if he had met more of his constituents over the last three years that he has been an MP, he might have found out more about the issues which concern us.

Dorset is a wonderful county and we deserve an MP who works for the many, not the few.

*My question:

“At a time when sewage contamination in the rivers and seas is dire and Dorset has been revealed to be one of the worst counties for bird of prey illegal killings, why did you resign as a trustee of the Jurassic Coast Trust in July 2022?”