The swan sanctuary in Worcester isn’t an organisation but a stretch of the River Severn at the heart of Worcester, set aside for swans in the early 1980s. Until then,Worcester was heavily fished. Swans coming to Worcester fell very ill with lead poisoning or became entangled in fishing line. People around in those days recall that there were no swans on the river: they died. The landowners, Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Council, gave up their income from fishing permits, and anglers a pleasant place to fish, for the welfare of swans.
Old fishing line with lead weights is still found in the sanctuary, but deaths are far fewer these days. The swan population has recovered here, as it has nationally, since most lead fishing weights were banned in 1987.
The sanctuary lies between Worcester Cathedral and the railway viaduct north of Worcester Bridge. It is now the central part of the newly developing Riverside Park established by Worcester City Council to improve the riverside along 5km of the Severn from Gheluvelt Park in the north, to Diglis Island in the south.
The swans of course don’t recognise the sanctuary boundaries. They use the whole park, and beyond, at different times of the day, and according to the season. The Avon and the Teme join the Severn nearby, so Worcester forms a hub for swans moving around the County and beyond.
Few swans in the sanctuary have hatched on the river. Steep banks, rapidly fluctuating river levels, predation and competition mean that survival of nests and cygnets is rare. Most swans therefore look for quieter places to nest and raise their cygnets until they are ready to leave home.
Today the park is home to many of the County’s young swans as they grow up. A few swans have disabilities, such as angel wing or whole or partial wing amputation, which makes them flightless. Some are elderly or have returned for a while after losing their partners, or never find a territory of their own.
The heavy burden of silt carried by the Severn means that there are few plants (swans’ natural food) in the river. The swans rely on the local community and Worcester’s visitors to provide them with a varied and healthy diet, supplemented by their foraging along the banks.
Dusk on Christmas Day