Welney, England – Swans



Welney is the  Wildfowl & Weltand Trust (wwt) Ouse Washes reserve near the Norfolk border with Cambridgeshire and is famous for the thousands of Whooper and Bewick swans that over winter there.  The washes were built as a flood plain, during the summer the ‘washes’ are normally dry but during the winter they are flooded and provide an ideal place for many other wildfowl, as well as swans  (e.g. Pochard), but the swans are the stars.  The Whooper swans mainly arrive from Iceland in mid October after an amazing migration over the sea, the Bewicks mainly come from Arctic Russia which is a longer journey than the Whoopers but most of it is over land and therefore the Bewicks can rest on their journey and take time out if wanted, all together a more leisurely migration, but still daunting.  During the winter there are daily feeds for the wildfowl and even floodlit feeds on some days.

The Swans use the washes as a safe place to roost over night but many head to the fields to eat during the day,  there is usually still activity on the reserve to witness at all times.  All this means that there is a wonderful spectacle every morning and evening when thousands of swans are either departing for the fields or returning to roost.

There are other species that over winter at Welney, like male Pochards, the females mainly go to Spain where it is warmer.  Its thought the males do not go as far as the females because they return to their breeding sites first so that they are ready to try and attract a female when they return.  Widgeon, Coot, Moorhen, Mute Swan Lapwing etc etc can also been seen at Welney.

I have never visited during the summer but there is still wildlife around including ground nesting birds.


Whooper swans are noisy and quarrelsome, and these are the main swans (along with Mute Swans) that can be seen from the main hides, the Bewicks are smaller and like a quieter life so they do not usually come to the feeds and stay on the circumferences of the reserve.  The WWT web site says this about identification…

Bewick’s are smaller and more ‘goose-like’ in appearance and flight. The yellow patch on a Bewick’s Swan does not extend beyond the nostrils, unlike for Whooper Swans. The call of a Bewick’s Swan is also ‘less trumpeting’ than a Whooper and a flock of Bewick’s will collectively murmur as they settle to roost.


The Welney Ouse Washes is 2 miles east of the village of Welney via the A1101 road, but this route can sometimes be flooded and impassable during the winter, it is also possible to get to the Washes from the south via the A1101 or from the A10 through a village called ‘Ten Mile Bank’.  Sometimes you will be able to see swans in the fields on your arrival and/or departure, a free car park is next to the visitor centre.

Marker shows Welney Village… the Welney Visitor Centre is 2 miles east…
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Entry is free if you are a member of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, otherwise around £7 with a small concession for pensioners.

You have to enter the Visitor Centre and go up 1 level, through the Cafe (where there are toilets as well as on the ground floor), up another level and cross over a bridge to get to the viewing hides, there are no toilets after you cross the bridge and a return to the Cafe is needed if you are caught short 🙂

The main hide is fully enclosed and HEATED, so its very comfortable compared to most hides, this hide is not good for serious photography as its fully enclosed and you have to shoot through angled glass, but it is excellent for viewing especially at the feeds which normally includes a commentary of details of how/why the Ouse Washes exist and information regarding the swans migration amongst other things.


I mainly use a 500mm lens with a 1.4x converter at Welney and think the best time to photograph the Whoopers is from beginning of November to end of February and as mentioned earlier the main heated hide is not good for serious photography, but is does have 2 ‘Wing’ hides attached (one each end) that are good for photography, these have oblong glass viewing panels which fold up to open the area for photography and scopes.  Each alternative panel is a little larger than the previous and these are the ones I tend to use, although I have seen photographers using the smaller ones but I find them a little restrictive.  There is also an opening at 90% to these on the right just before you go to enter the main hide from where good flight shots can be had as swans overfly some reeds.  After walking over the bridge the first Wing hide you come to is the right hand side one, the main hide is straight through and to get to the left hand Wing hide you do have to go through the main hide.

These hides are good for flight shots but are a little high to shoot intimate shots at water level, however by PRIOR arrangement and passing over about £30 you can go to a little known hide UNDERNEATH the main hide which gives excellent water level shots, but you do need to take care not to spook the wildfowl from there.  Sometimes this hide does get flooded so be prepared to change plans if it is flooded when you get there and you must also pre book this hide and not just turn up and expect to be able to use it.

The main hide and Wing hides face North West and from November on the sun rises almost straight behind the hides and set to the left where there are some very good sunsets.  See the ‘Software’ page and download ‘The Photographers Ephemeris” for more details about sun positions.

One problem that I have come across is that the Visitor Centre (and therefore the hides) are not open in the winter until 10am, which is too late to see the swans depart in the morning, however the WWT does put on some early morning functions but I do not know how photography friendly these are – see the WWT web site for more details.

You should also be aware that from the Wing hides there are 2 backgrounds that can be distracting, to the right is a line of electricity pylons and straight ahead there are a small number of wind turbines, but as you are higher than the water level these can be overcome.

I prefer any wind to be from the South East as the swans then tend to land on the water coming towards you but even if the wind is in the opposite direction (from North West) the swans sometimes come quite close and then turn into the wind away from you and as they turn it can create some good flight shots.


There are a number of other hides beside the main and Wing hides.  As you come over the bridge to the right is Buxton Hide, North Finger Hide, Allport Hide and Friends hide, to the left is South Finger Hide.  These are always worth trying if nothing is happening at the Wing hides and you can get some good flight shots from both Finger hides, the North one is shooting into the light so can provide different shots to the South Finger Hide.



There are also other WWT reserves, beside Welney, that can produce some good photographic opportunities including, Slimbridge, Martin Mere, London Wetlands Centre, Arundel, Washington, Caelaverock, Llanelle and Castle Espie


Slideshow of some of my images from Welney…

Youtube Floodlit Feed by MartynUK

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