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Catching Swans

With the Bewick’s arriving in force now at WWT Welney and WWT Slimbridge as the cold weather chases them ever westwards, it’s time to start planning our annual swan catch. 

With Bewick’s facing a 40% decline in just 20 years, we need to understand why and quickly. Catching swans is an important part of that process.  Not only does it provide important information on their general health, re-sightings of ringed birds enables us to determine whether their survival rates have changed over time.

How do we catch Bewick’s ?

At WWT Welney we use a process called canon-netting.  We wait for the Bewick’s to land and feed in a field and then fire a net over them.


At WWT Slimbridge we use the swan-pipe, which is a modification of the traditional duck decoy.   Every day over winter, grain is distributed to encourage swans to feed into the pipe.  Once or twice a year we close the gate behind the swans in the pipe, enabling us to catch them easily in this confined space.

Once caught, it’s quickly into their swan jackets for the swans, to keep them safe, before they’re given their full health check.


Why catch swans?

More than a quarter of all our Bewick’s arrive in the UK with shot in their bodies. How do we know? Because each year, during their winter stopovers in the UK, we catch and x-ray the birds. It’s only by x-raying them for shot that we’ve been able to prove the threat hunting poses to our swans.


During the catch, the swans are also weighed and measured, giving us a good indication of their general health and condition.


Ringing birds

But there’s one final job before we let the swans go.  But arguably, it’s one of the most important.


When WWT founder, Sir Peter Scott, first wanted to find out where his beloved Bewick’s went after leaving Slimbridge in the spring, he had to find a way of making them easily identifiable by people other than himself. After all he couldn’t expect everyone to be able to recognise them by their bill patterns alone, like he could. So he came up with an ingenious solution.  By putting individual rings around the swans’ legs he made it easy for the swans to be identified.  

Now 50 years on, WWT has ringed over 2,500 Bewick’s and there have been over 700,000 sightings  of these birds in the UK and abroad.

This year, 38 more swans were ringed in their Russian breeding grounds. They are flying through northern Europe now – and we’ve already had three sightings.  Can you spot them?  With the help of just a pair of binoculars or a telescope, it's easy to identify a swan from its leg ring.  


Photo copyright Andrey Glotov, and Yulia Leonova

The more information we have, the clearer the picture and the better we can protect them, so it’s vital that we get more swan spotters along the flyway.

In return for any sightings reported to WWT, we will send you a full report on that bird's history.

To find out more about joining our network of ring readers, please contact:

If you do spot a Bewick's send the details of their ring number and colour, along with the date and location seen, the observer name and contact details to: