Black Swans of the Derwent.

Black Swans on the River Derwent

I don’t know why I thought that the Black Swan of Tasmania was an introduced species. I just did. I had thought of the swan as ‘European’, and had jumped to the assumption that it had been introduced to Tasmania by the European settlers, probably for sport, much as the deer and rabbits and trout and other animals that were relocated from one side of the world to the other.

But the black swan is a native, and I came to this realisation recently as I read the histories of the Big River People (as the indigenous first peoples of the Derwent Valley and Central Highlands were known) and in particular, the oral history of Lance LeSage.

At the time of European settlement, there were 9 Tasmanian tribes each within their own territories, and each tribe had many sub-groups known as bands within its territory..
The Derwent Valley and Central Highlands was then, as it is now, a particularly fertile region.


There was very little reason for members of the Big River tribe to move out of this territory as food and water was plentiful. Bands would periodically travel following seasonal harvests, and the highland bands would move to the lower lands during the winter. They hunted and foraged things such as birds, wallaby, wombat, possum, platypus and fresh water lobster and gathered fruits, roots, tubers, berries, healing herbs, plants and fibres.


They also used fire to modify the land. Animals were attracted to new growth following the fires, which made them easier to hunt. And of course, animals were always attracted to the rivers to drink.

Black Swan on the River Derwent

Occasionally bands made trips outside of their tribal areas to harvest desired supplies such as ochre with which they painted their bodies for spiritual ceremonies or when in mourning. The ochre was also used for artwork. More frequent trips were made to other areas in search of brides from outside of the immediate tribe to avoid intermarriage.

But otherwise the peoples were at one with their place, and tended to stay within its boundaries. The Derwent Valley people were one of only 3 tribes in Tasmania which built huts, which would suggest that their settlements were at least semi-permanent affairs. Most camps, clusters of half-domed huts, were made along the rivers where there was abundant food to be had.

As Lance tells it, the local aborigines were really big eaters, and their favourite food was the black swan. Apparently, back then, there were so many swans that the Derwent River was black with them. The mature birds were too hard to catch so the first peoples harvested the nests sustainably, taking only one egg, or one cygnet, from each nest which typically held 4-8 greenish-white eggs.

Swans pair for life and both adults share in the raising of their one and only brood per season, so sustainable harvesting meant that supply to the aboriginal peoples was on-going.


The first white settlers came to the Derwent Valley in the late 1790s, and when the first settlement was established in 1807, it is recorded as having 467 ‘starving’ inhabitants in appalling conditions. Needs does as needs must, and starving people cannot think about tomorrow when their focus is on surviving today.

For many reasons, over time, the swan numbers declined, but the Derwent Valley is still renowned today for having large numbers of black swans.
But I sure would have loved to see it back in the days when the river was black with them.

Words by Laurelle Grimley, of Woodbridge on The Derwent and Truffle Lodge

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