Reintroduction of Swans to the London Thames, by Colin Bowlt
One of Max's many splendid ideas was the reintroduction of Swans to the Thames in Central
London, where they have been absent for some years.
Mute Swans have a long historical association with the River Thames at London. In 1496 the
secretary to the Venetian Ambassador writing to his master said "it is a truly beautiful thing to
behold one or two thousand tame swans upon the river Thames as I and your magnificence
have seen." Swans were still present on the London Thames until the middle of the 20th
century. In the early 1950's up to forty birds were reported at places where they could rest
undisturbed and where food was plentiful, specifically near Waterloo, from grain and rubbish
loading (ceased 1953) and from a Thames-side restaurant.
There was a national decline in Swan numbers in the late 1950's, largely attributed to lead
poisoning. With the banning of the use of lead shot by anglers Swans have increased
dramatically overall, but they have not returned to the Thames at London. 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?
Finally at the end of 1998 the whole idea just fizzled out. A sad end to a great idea! One day
the Swans may return of their own accord and have the last laugh.