The Landscape Guide

The re-introduction of swans to Central London

See index page for Chelsea to Tower Thames Landscape Strategy

Central London used to famous for its swans. A few survive but the onetime population of 'thousands' was devastated by habitat reduction, oil spills and the lead weights formerly used by anglers. Today, the main problems are that there is hardly anything for them to eat and nowhere for them to nest. Fortunately, two solutions are available:

  • Central Londoners, and visitors can get back into the habit of feeding swans, as they still do in Richmond, Kingston and Windsor. Swans enjoy bread and chick peas but it would be better if visitors gave them their natural food: vegetable matter.
  • Floating swan islands can be provided as refuges and nesting sites. If well-deslgned, the islands can also be beautiful features in the landscape.

Swan Upping

The annual Swan Upping Ceremony, shown in the video, began in Central London from the Middle Ages until the twentieth century. It's start point then moved to Sunbury and it may not belong before it has to move to Shepperton or Staines.

Swans and biodiversity

The loss of swans from Central London is a strong indicator of the river's progressive loss of biodiversity since the sixteenth century. Swans do not have many natural predators but can be injured by pollution, lead weights used by anglers, fishing tackle, and overhead power lines. An excess number of swans can be damaging to biodiversity because they can reduce the availability of aquatic plants for other species. This is not a problem in Central London and, if it became a problem, the Swan Uppers could manage swan numbers as they did on the Upper Thames in the nineteenth century.

Max Nicholson's campaign for London Swans in the 20th century

Max Nicholson, who founded a landscape architecture firm (LUC - Land Use Consultants) wanted to see the swans back on the capital's river:  'A survey by the London Natural History Society suggested that the evidence pointed strongly to the lack of food as the reason for their non-return., and that introduction of a small number of birds with regular feeding, for an initial period, might re-establish them. The Swans on the Thames are owned by the Crown and the Vintners and Dyers Companies. Max obtained the approval of the Queen for reintroduction and persuaded the Silver Jubilee Walkway Trust (part of their walk is alongside the Thames) to finance a feeding programme for two years after which it was hoped that feeding by the public and restaurants would sustain them. The scheme was seen as one of high profile aimed at restoring part of London's heritage and enhancing public enjoyment of this stretch of the Thames.
Meetings were held and site visits made. The Port of London Authority, Environment Agency, River Police, City Corporation and adjoining Boroughs were informed. The Tower of London, HMS Belfast and the Vintners Livery Company were approached. Max consulted the Queen's Swan Master, and the Director of the Wildlife and Wetland Trust. Then difficulties, particularly with regard to artificial feeding on a tidal river, were gradually put forward. Food just thrown in is quickly swept away and any form of hopper would have to be able to accommodate to the considerable rise and fall of water level. Slowly the project lost momentum. Were there sufficient roosting sites? Was there a suitable feeding place?Whose responsibility would it be if a bird became injured'. and what about Health and Safety?

A report on London Swans in the 19th century

John Timbs wrote, in 1868, that: The custom of swan-upping (vulgarly called swan-hopping), or taking up the young swans to mark them, is still observed, and is commemorated with high civic festivities. Two of the London Companies — the Dyers' and the Vintners' Companies — are, with the Crown, the principal owners of swans in the Thames. We shall first speak of the royal swans, and the state with which they were attended. The king had formerly a swan-herd, not only on the Thames but in several other parts of the kingdom; and we find persons exercising the office of " Master of the King's Swans," sometimes called the swanship. The laws relating to swans are very severe. Stealing swans marked and pinioned, or unmarked, if kept in a water, pond, or private river is felony. Stealing swans not so marked, or not so kept and pinioned, is merely a trespass or misdemeanour. The law is said to have formerly been, that when a swan, lawfully marked, is stolen in an open and common river, "the same swan (if it may be), or another swan, shall be hung in a house by the beak, and he who stole it shall, in recompense thereof, be obliged to give the owner so much wheat that may cover all the swan, until the head of the swan be covered with the wheat." Stealing the eggs of swans out of their nests was punished by imprisonment for a year, and a fine at the king's pleasure, under a law of Henry Vii. This was superseded by a law of James I., which declares that every person taking eggs of swans out of their nests, or wilfully breaking or spoiling them, may, upon conviction before two justices, be committed to gaol for three months. The swan-herds wore swan-feathers in their caps. The struggles of the swans when caught by their pursuers, and the duckings which the latter received in the contest, made this a diversion with our ancestors of no ordinary interest. The Swan-upping Day was fixed, by the Swan Law of 1570, on the Monday after St. Peter's Day (June 29); but in our time the festival on the occasion has been held in July, and the business of the marking in August. The swan-herds have a sort of dialect. Thus, they call a male swan a cob, and a female a pen; and certain small swans, which feed and range, and return home again, are called hoppers. The upping is called a "swan voyage." The swans in the Thames are far less numerous than they used to be. At the upping of August 1841 the following number of old and young swans belonged to her Majesty and the two civic Companies: The Queen 232 The Vintners Company 100 The Dyers' Company 105 The total 437 swans.

Evidence for swans on the Central London Thames in the middle ages

In 1496, the Venetian Ambassador’s secretary wrote that ‘It is a truly beautiful thing to behold one or two thousand tame swans upon the river Thames as I, and also your magnificence, have seen, which are eaten by the English like ducks and geese'

Paolo Giovio (= Paulus Jovius); wrote of the Thames in 1552: 'This river abounds in swans swimming in flocks, the sight of which, and their noise, are very agreeable to the fleets that meet them in their course.'

Francesco Ferretti, in 1579 wrote of our 'broad river of Thames, most charming, and quite full of swans white as the very snow.'

Hentzner, in I598, wrote that the river 'abounds in swans, swimming in flocks ; the sight of them and their noise is vastly agreeable to the fleets that meet them in their course.

The Duke of Najera in 1548, wrote that 'A river runs through London, one of the largest I have ever seen. It is not possible, in my opinion, that a more beautiful river should exist in the world, for the city stands on each side of it, and innumerable boats, vessels, and other craft are seen moving on the stream. The sea is not far off, and every day tide ascends and descends the distance of more than fifteen leagues. The bridge on this river is the finest I ever beheld, or heard of, nor do I believe its equal is to be found. It crosses from one part of the city to the other, which is divided by the water. There are twenty wide arches,“ and the whole of the bridge (which is of great length) forms a beautiful street, with houses of tradesmen built on either side of it. Never did I see a river so thickly covered with swans" as this'.