I’VE met a host of lovely people whilst writing this column but probably none as charming and dedicated to her cause as Dot Beeson, the woman behind the Swan Sanctuary based in Felix Lane, Shepperton.
I’ve known of the sanctuary for years – since it was based in Egham – but I’d never visited it before and the scale of the operation was a real eye-opener.
Dot, now in her late 50s, first became involved with rescuing water birds in trouble when she was 31.
She said: “It was in May 1980 and I was into watching the birds on the old gravel pits close to my home in Huntingfield Way, Egham. I saw this pair of swans land and over the next few weeks I watched them build a nest and rear a brood of cygnets and the adult birds used to come over the see me whenever I went down there.
“One day, I saw the cob (the male bird) had a load of fishing line hanging from his mouth and it was clear he’d got a hook stuck in his bill. I just knew I had to do something to help.”
But when Dot looked around for somebody to provide that help, she discovered there was no organisation to look after injured water birds.
“I eventually managed to get him to a vet in Windsor who extracted the hook and line and he then asked me if I was prepared to keep an eye on the swan just to make sure he was recuperating properly – and that’s how it all started.”
For around eight years, Dot nursed injured birds back to health in her back garden but as the scale of the operation grew, she realised she needed more space. So she sold her house and bought a two-acre parcel of land in Egham to carry on her good work.
“We worked from there for about 16 years,” Dot recalled, “and I lived in a tiny mobile home on the site – well, I had nowhere else to go having sold the house. It was cold and damp and uncomfortable but you only get one life on this planet and I knew I had to go on helping injured wildlife.”
After a lengthy search, Dot and her partner Steve Knight eventually bought the current 10-acre site in Shepperton and moved their operation there in 2005.
“Steve’s an engineer by trade” Dot told me, “and he’s been absolutely magnificent. He’s dug ponds and water courses and helped with putting up the buildings and maintenance. He’s probably as daft as I am. I rely very heavily on him, our three paid staff and the brilliant volunteers who give up their time to help us.”
I think you could call Dot Beeson many things but daft isn’t a word I’d choose. Fantastic maybe; caring certainly and an example to the rest of us who take so much for granted in the world around us. This extraordinary woman has given over her life to helping wildlife and the wonderful facilities at the sanctuary – complete with x-ray machine, operating theatre and a well-run recuperation centre are a tribute to her dedication and determination.
“We’ve had lots of ups and downs but the best part of this job is releasing birds back into the wild again,” she said. And she does that on a regular basis with 85% of the feathered patients arriving at the sanctuary eventually going back to their natural habitats.
In two weeks time, I shall be continuing Dot’s story and looking at her hopes for the future of the swan sanctuary – and reflecting her understandable anger directed at those who, through neglect or malice, end up hurting the birds.
For more information, visit Dot’s website.