How To Deal With Swans And Spiders On A Narrowboat

I had an email yesterday from Debbie Smith. She wanted some advice on dealing with a couple of her pet hates; swans and spiders. They’re spoiling her enjoyment of the canals and everything on them. I’m sure that she’s not on her own, so here’s her question and my suggestions.

“This is going to sound very ridiculous and I risk being viewed as a right wimp. I would very much welcome advice on how to deal with swans who seem to take delight tormenting me with my phobia of them by refusing to budge when I need to pass by on a very narrow section of towpath! I’ve tried bribery with bread, and speaking very nicely (whilst muttering dark threats under my breath and trying to look cool) but they are not impressed. Also – even more of an anxiety, apart from horse- chestnut spray, is there anything I can do to try to dissuade the big hairy type house spiders from inviting themselves on board. (I wouldn’t kill them despite loathing the very sight of them).

Apart from these two fears I am quite rational and sane. Rats, mice and snakes are no problem – oh yeah – maybe wasps give me the heebie jeebies but I can cope with them.

Hope you can help with my neuroses apart from recommending that I have major therapy or give up the boating idea!”

Dealing With aggressive Swans

Swans first. They can be fearsome creatures, so I can understand Debbie’s anxiety. A full-grown male can reach almost 30lb in weight and have a wingspan of nearly eight feet. A cobb (male) puffing up his chest, hissing and spreading his wings to protect his pen (female) and their young brood can be quite scary. But swans, as with most creatures, just want a quiet life. They only present an aggressive front when they feel threatened.

Swans aren't always agressive

Swans aren’t always aggressive

I have to get very close to our resident breeding pair in my day-to-day duties as a groundsman. They are most protective, and therefore aggressive during their April – June breeding season. As the cygnets increase in size and become less vulnerable, the adults relax more. It IS possible though to coexist with swans at all times if you just apply a little common sense.

Swans feel very threatened by dogs. If you have a dog that is likely to chase the swans, make sure that it is kept on a short leash. A barking dog will also increase the swan’s agitation, so try to calm your dog. I have two spaniels. They have only recently come to live with me at the marina. Their first visit here was their first experience of swans. They’re spaniels, they’re inquisitive, and the swans didn’t like it. There was much hissing, wing flapping and a bit of barking too.

But Charlie and Daisy aren’t aggressive dogs. They quickly learned not to go too close to the swans. The swans soon accepted them and now both dogs and swans live in harmony. Charlie and Daisy can sniff through the reeds to their heart’s content just ten feet away from the sunbathing adults and their young with no problem at all.

I have learned to live in harmony with swans too. The secret is to take things slowly. Sudden moves alarm all animals. Swans are no exception. If you walk rapidly towards them, they will become defensive and aggressive. If you walk towards them slowly, they will simply move away. At the marina, the swans like to relax on the grass. Two adult swans and six half-grown cygnets laying on the ground make grass cutting a bit of a challenge. There’s a simple solution though. I just move towards them slowly with the mower. If they become agitated, I stop for a moment. When they settle down, I move forward again. They no longer feel threatened, just uncomfortable so they waddle out of the way and slip into the water.

It’s also possible to decrease the birds’ agitation by decreasing your height. If you squat down, you are less intimidating to the swans.

Spiders: Your Little Helpers

I don’t have a problem with spiders now but I did when I first moved on board I did. They were everywhere. Of course the boat was infested with spiders because it had been unoccupied for years. They had a free rein and had made themselves very comfortable. Now I don’t have any more problems with spiders than I would if I was living in a house. Spider webs appear from time to time but not enough to be considered a problem.

So why did I have a problem then and don’t have a problem now? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, the boat is now cleaned very regularly; far more now that Sally is on board full time. Spiders simply don’t get a chance to establish themselves. Whenever a web, or traces of a web, appears, it is dusted into oblivion. As James is all wood panelling inside, there’s a fair amount of furniture polish used inside the boat. I don’t think the spiders like it.

There’s also less opportunity for them to get in these days. In November 2011 I had the existing masonite cabin overplated with steel. The masonite (oil treated ply) was 35 years old and way past its effective life. The two side hatches and the rear hatch were constructed out of deckboard which had warped. The gaps between hatches and doors was large enough to fit my finger so presented no barrier at all for the largest spider.

The roof was in five sections. The four roof joints had moved apart and subsequently been taped over with what looked like duct tape. The tape had split on every joint to allow insects – and the weather – easy access. Many of the windows leaked too. The gaps between window frame and cabin again allowed easy access for insects.

The new 4mm steel roof, cabin sides, forward and rear bulkheads, hatches and doors have both weatherproofed the boat and provided a deterrent for insects. I spent three weeks painting James in April 2012. There are now five lovingly applied coats of paint to protect the steel. I paid particular attention to the window frames. All the frames are now leak free. They are spider-access free too.

Some spiders do manage to sneak on board though so what do I do to get rid of them? Not much to be honest. I would rather have a dozen spiders than a single fly. Disgusting disease ridden little blighters. The more spiders there are to keep the flies down the happier I am. Maybe you don’t feel the same way though so what can you do to discourage spiders from settling?


Conkers. Good old horse chestnuts. The things that school children used to thread om strings and spend endless hours trying to destroy before the gods of the Health and Safety Executive banned such a dangerous activity. Spiders don’t like conkers. Collect horse chestnuts in the autumn then place them next to doors and windows to keep spiders at bay. That’s the theory anyway. Boat and bricks and mortar home owners swear by their effectiveness. There doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence to back up their claims. The Royal Society for Chemistry (RSC) launched an investigation in 2009 to find out if there was any scientific evidence to substantiate the old wives’ tale. You can read a report here.

Whether there’s evidence or not to support the effectiveness of conkers, their use certainly won’t do any harm. Nor will ensuring that your boat is dusted and polished regularly and that window and door frames are as gap-free as possible.

Swans and spiders are a part of everyday life on a narrowboat. There’s much that you can do to minimise your contact with them or to ensure that your experiences with them are as problem free as possible. Don’t let spider and swan phobias spoil your enjoyment of life on the water.

Useful Information
Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.

Pengalanty - Thursday,12 July, 2012

Paul and I know each other quite well.

I have quite a different approach it seems when it comes to Swans and Spiders.  I agree that swans are sometimes aggressive and intimidating, not just at breeding times but also when they have been spoilt by regular feeding, by boating holiday makers and local residents

When I moor up in a new place, I am often greeted by swans. When I don’t feed them they apply their intimidating methods;
hissing and biting etc. My resonse is to smack them with a wide’ish flat plank (ex. 3 x 1 piece of timber)

I can just hear so many people saying, “You cruel thing, you shouldn’t treat animals like that,” – BUT – swans have great protection from their feathers and are not hurt at all due to the insulation (Air between feathers and frame). Smacking with a wide plank startles them and is quite a foreign reaction, and makes a loud’ish noise but doesn’t hurt them (It’s Not a vicious smack)

Swans are intelligent animals and learn exceptionally quickly

After only one application of my action, I only have to pick up the plank and let them see it and the swans “Back-Off”. They know my boat and don’t bother me again.  After a couple of times of just showing them the plank, (After only using once), they soon learn not to bother me!

Spiders are so simple to deal with.  I have found they react extremely quickly with aerosol fly spray when used – they disappear very quickly -and it is quite a long time before one gets another invasion of spiders, when the fly-spray comes to the rescue again and used (Wasps drop much more quickly than flies with the spray and when left for a while, are easily disposed of (Easily used in cracks and vents etc.,)


This is my way of tacking “pests” – AND don’t say I am adverse to animals – I love ’em!

I grew up with gerbils, tame white rats,(Note: White Rats are very intelligent animals and learn very quickly), pet mice, guinea pigs, cats and dogs and a pet jackdaw. During the war years, chickens were kept in the back garden (It was a large garden).  I also lived on a farm for many years, looking after cows, pigs and chickens 

Growing up with animals and family pets, is a valuable part of learning and growing up. Dogs especially, seem to have a sixth sense!  They can tell from up to 300-meters away if people are dog lovers, or are frightened of them


As they have such great noses, I wonder if ones reaction when seeing a dog, one gives off a scent that the dogs pick up??? Just a thought!


 One thing I have learned, you have to show some animals who is boss! Then a natural truce is reached and both animals and beings; both know where they stand!

Be positive – Have a Great day! ~Allan~


Paul Horton - Sunday,29 December, 2013

Whilst not really being a “problem” we do have a few spiders around the boat and they are not my favourite animals. Like Paul, we are pretty regular with the wood polish but the cobwebs seem to appears almost immediately (ok, so I miss a few with the duster) and seem much stickier than those from the spiders in our old bricks and mortar home. As I am unlikely to find conkers in the bleak midwinter, I have today bought a bottle of “No More Spiders” spray from the marina shop.  The only active ingredient listed on the bottle is 0.25%w/w peppermint oil, so like the conkers, it shouldn’t cause any actual harm.  Will report back when I have some results either way.  Has anyone else tried it?


Julynian - Sunday,29 December, 2013


We have a fair few spiders too, but I don’t think as many as your getting. I note Paul likes it hot on the boat, and I think it’s possible that’s what might be attracting them. Your lovely warm boat is like a free of charge 5 star hotel with as much as you can eat or drink for free also Laugh

We’ve just got used to them, they can’t hurt you after all, I just move them outside, although that can kill certain types of spider anyway. It’s a very interesting subject and there’s a lot on the web “forgive the pun” about them. You might already have house spiders as well even in a newish boat.

Careful with the chemicals with the cats around too, we try mostly to avoid chemicals, but flies in the summer will need spraying if you kill off the spiders Laugh 


nb ellisiana - Monday,30 December, 2013

I go with the conkers remedy. They seem to do the job admirably.

Each September we collect a bucket load of them and distribute a pile by each exit and near to the windows and we have hardly any on board. Interestingly we have a ‘duty spider’ taken up residence in each of our 4 mushroom vents and, consequently, we seem to be remarkably free of any bugs, of any description.

I wish we had little geckos in this country. They would be great to have on board roaming around consuming mozzies, flies and the like.

Another thing I have found very useful is a sticky transparent 4″ square of thin plastic film marketed by Rentokil which traps flies and wasps and such like. You can find it in Tescos etc. I put one in a window towards each end of the boat, and one in the middle of the boat. They hide very easily behind curtains in a top corner of the window. When it has collected a few bugs you simply peel it off the window and put up another one.




Paul Smith - Monday,30 December, 2013

I can’t give you another effective remedy for flying bugs but I can steer you away from one which is hopeless in the confines of a narrowboat. Don’t waste your money on this one.


KatandDen - Sunday,5 January, 2014

Having a hubby who is arachnophobic I am use to running around scooping them up jumping on there heads ect and after living in a caravan on a Kent nature reserve I know how ugly the fake widow is and I’ve seen the after effects of its bite!

 There is a product out there called Dethlac you can get it from Wilkinson stores in the spring summer time,  Its not very friendly tho so please read the label! You can also use mosquito netting to cover vent holes without loss of air flow. I did once here that if you have wooden services as most boats do after cleaning walls and ceilings give them a quick wipe with neat washing up liquid this makes walls sticky which spiders don’t like and might also help with condensation.

There you go all I’ve got to do now is get over my fear of bumble bugs lol.


Kat (&Den)


Paul Smith - Sunday,5 January, 2014

KatandDen said
if you have wooden services as most boats do after cleaning walls and ceilings give them a quick wipe with neat washing up liquid this makes walls sticky which spiders don’t like and might also help with condensation.

The spiders might not like it but I have a significant other who wouldn’t like it either. If I started to wipe Fairy Liquid on the walls, she would feed me to the fish!


loubyscooby - Tuesday,14 January, 2014

I too hate spiders with a passion but dont want to kill them either. In the spring I spray the entrance to the boat (2 doors & 2 hatches), the windows, mushrooms and gunnels with “Spider Gone” and the result is I don’t have webs or spiders on the boat – perfect.  I also spay the table and chairs I have on the crusier stern so dont have that panic every time I sit down.

As my boating neighbour also hates spiders more than me we also spray the lecky bollard between us. Smile 


jeff-yvonne - Wednesday,8 April, 2015

Never thought about adding spiders to my research list. I’m arachnaphobic and break into a cold sweat

just thinking about the little buggers (like now). I do have a tip for mosquitoes and midges though: they

hate lavender. From spring to late autumn mozzies are a serious problem here in Korea, but lavender

in the garden and scented soap work well.

Best to all,



Paul Smith - Wednesday,8 April, 2015

We very rarely see spiders on the boat these days due to Sally’s vigorous cleaning regime. It’s hard to beat an enthusiastically wielded duster and some furniture polish.


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