Swans In London: Things You Should Know

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 101 months ago

Last Updated 27 January 2016

Swans In London: Things You Should Know
Photo by Gearoid Hayes in the Londonist Flickr pool

Swans in London... What? Why? How? This:

How many swans are there in London?

The vast majority of swans in London are mute swans; these are your 'trademark' large, white, s-necked birds that novelty pedalos take after. There are, says the RSPB, 115-120 breeding pairs of mute swans within Greater London alone. London also has the odd black swan, whooper swan (these are trying to nest on the reservoirs of west London), and Bewick's swan (which have either migrated here from Siberia or are very lost). London Wildlife Trust tells us their records count 8,578 swans altogether within the Greater London boundary — although there are likely many more.

Are London swans cockier than other swans?

Apparently not. The RSBP tells us that recently a swan was reported disrupting traffic near Heathrow, but this was more a case of the swan being a bit dim; it had been raining heavily and the bird mistook a road for a river. There are plenty of stories of aggressive swans elsewhere in the country, none more so than Cambridge's Mr Asbo, who was so violent he upturned a boat and was eventually barred from the River Cam altogether. Mr Asbo has since had a son, Asboy, and a grandson, Asbaby. Is that sweet or highly troubling?

Does the Queen own all the swans in London?

No. Mute swans — and mute swans only — are shared between the crown and members of the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies. This shared ownership is marked in the ancient, but extant, ritual of swan upping.

Statue of a swan upper on Trinity Lane

And what exactly is swan upping?

It's a tradition rooted in the 12th century, a time when the monarchy would tally up how many swans it had annually. For many centuries swans were roasted and dished up at banquets (BBC drama The Tudors showed Henry VIII devouring a swan while his imminent ex, Anne Boleyn, had her head chopped off). On or around 1472, the crown let the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers in on the action; swan upping then became an annual process of divvying up the feathered goods. The Dyers would put one notch in their swans' beaks, the Vintners, two, while the crown's swans were left notchless. Swan Upping continues to this day, with scarlet-clad 'swan uppers' making a five-day journey up the Thames every third week of July, and (harmlessly) tagging the birds. The trip used to be from the livery companies in central London to Henley, but now it's between Sunbury and Abingdon.

Is London a bit obsessed with swans?

Quite possibly. There are numerous pubs called the Swan (including the Swan at Shakespeare's Globe, the Swan in the City of London, the Swan in Hammersmith, the Swan in Bayswater, the Swan in Holborn, the Swan in Stockwell and the Swan and Paedo in Croydon which is not a real pub, but was suggested by Super Hans in an episode of Peep Show and therefore counts). There's also an Aussie rules rugby team called the Swans, three dry cleaners, a Chinese takeaway in Harlington... and remember those swan pedaloes we mentioned earlier? You can hire one in Crystal Palace Park.

What happens if I kill/eat a swan?

You're in trouble, sunshine. Apparently the 'punishable by death' law was never repealed, but let's face it, David Cameron wouldn't do himself any favours following through on that one. Swans are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and killing or even injuring one carries a £5,000 fine or six months in jail. Stealing a swan egg is considered an equal offence and carries the same maximum penalty. And no, you probably wouldn't want to eat a swan; one description that keeps cropping up is 'fishy mutton'. Food fit for a king? Henry VIII ate anything.