How do you count swans? Quite easily as I discovered when I went to watch the annual Swan Upping on the River Thames. The Swan Uppers are in six skiffs and manoeuvre to surround a brood — cob, pen and cygnets — and either lift them into the skiffs or get them to the riverbank. They are then weighed, given health checks and the cygnets are ringed.
I was on the Windsor to Cookham leg and early in the morning on the quayside there was a party atmosphere with the Uppers, Swan Markers and assorted personnel chatting and laughing. On the river by the opposite bank was a host of swans, some white and some still beige ( obviously youngsters). When I asked about them I was told that it was the teenagers “club”: young swans that have been sent on their way to find their life partners and set up their own homes.
Then it was time to board the various craft — press boat, small motorboats and, of course, the Swan Uppers in their skiffs: the Queen’s Swan Marker in his scarlet blazer and cap and three Uppers ( in scarlet T- shirts) into the red skiff with the large white flag, and four Uppers ( also in scarlet T- shirts) in the second red skiff. The Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Dyers and of the Worshipful Company of Vintners got into their navy skiffs, their Swan Markers in navy blazers and caps, the Uppers for the Dyers in navy T- shirts and the Vintners in white. All three Swan Markers have a jaunty swan’s feather in their caps. The skiffs of the Swan Markers for the Dyers and Vintners also fly a flag — blue for the Dyers and red
for the Vintners. Most appropriate I thought for the suppliers of wine.
The Queen’s Swan Marker, David Barber, leads off the procession with people on the bridge and riversides cheering and waving. As we pass Windsor Castle the rowers stand to attention with oars raised to salute “Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”.
Centuries ago the monarch was entitled to claim ownership of any mute swans or could give these rights to others. The first written record of a royal swan was around 1186 and related to captive birds but it is thought that the custom of owning swans goes back even further.
Originally the young birds were valuable as food and were served up at banquets. Each year they were rounded up during Swan Upping while the cygnets were still too small to fly. They were ( and still are) identified by the mark of the owner of the parent birds. Catching the broods was very labour intensive, needing many men and boats. But as domestic poultry became favoured, the swans became less valuable. By the 1850s only a few people kept their rights to own swans.
Nowadays there are only three organisations that have maintained their rights to own swans. These are the two livery companies and, of course, the Crown. Between them they maintain Swan Upping on the River Thames, but now the emphasis is on conservation. Thank goodness
these beautiful birds are no longer considered to be food for humans! There is one other group in the United Kingdom that has rights to swans and that is the Ilchester family which owns the swans at Abbotsbury in Dorset.
As well as ringing the cygnets the Swan Uppers are concerned with the welfare of the mute swans. It is the Queen’s Swan Warden who collects the data, assesses the health of young cygnets and examines them for injuries.
Swan Upping is carried out in the third week of July. Originally it took place between London and Henley but now the journey begins at Sunbury and ends at Abingdon — a distance of 79 miles.
There is a fleet of “little ships” owned by volunteers who assist by towing the skiffs between the broods of swans. One proviso about the little ships is that they must be wooden boats. Swans are territorial and usually cover a two- mile stretch of river, so being towed between the broods does cut down the time. I was told that if the Swan Uppers had to row the distance it would take a
lot longer than a week to do their job.
Everyone is on the lookout for the swans and as soon as a brood of cygnets is spotted a cry of “All up!” is the signal that the boats should get into position. This involves surrounding the cygnets — much to the annoyance of the parents — so that the young can be checked out, either in the skiffs or, if there is room, on the riverbank.
We all know that wire coat hangers are useful and at the Swan Upping I discovered another use for them — weighing the swans. When the swans are caught their feet are loosely tied together and they are gently laid on a strong piece of fabric which has a wire coat hanger on either side. The hooks are then connected to the spring scale.
It is the Queen’s Swan Warden — a Professor of Ornithology from the University of Oxford’s Zoology Department — in his own skiff ( with assistants) who examines the swans for disease and injury. After all this, the Sovereign’s Swan Marker ( David Barber) checks the adult swans to see who owns them. The Dyers’ and Vintners’ swans are ringed with their ID. The Royal Swans aren’t ringed except for their identification numbers with which all swans are marked. After that the swans are carefully returned to the river, making sure that the cygnets stay with their parents.
As a great deal of Swan Upping these days is to do with conservation and education, during the day we pulled in to Oakley Court where some schoolchildren were waiting for us. They sat on the grass absolutely enthralled as David Barber, the professor and the heads of the Dyers and Vintners companies talked to them about Swan Upping, swans and some of the problems which these beautiful birds encounter — fishing hooks and lines being a couple of the major problems. For the children the real thrill was seeing close up — and gently stroking — a pair of orphaned cygnets.
During a break at one of the locks David Barber came onto the press boat to tell us about his job and to answer questions. The first one was: “How did you get the job?”
“Applied for it,” he responded with a grin.
There were several applicants and, as he put it, he was the lucky one. And the appointment had to be approved by Her Majesty the Queen.
Apart from Swan Upping the Queen’s Swan Marker also advises organisations across the country on swan welfare and incidents such as vandalism involving swans. He also keeps a check on local swan populations and advises fishing and boating organisations about working with wildlife and helping to maintain the habitat.
Other important jobs he has include swan rescue and trying to save sick and injured birds. During the Thames regattas — such as Henley Royal Regatta — the Swan Marker co- ordinates the temporary removal of swans from that stretch of the river.
This was a great day out and fascinating to watch and learn about the mute swans. As the Swan Uppers are all friends there was a lot of laughing and joking between the skiffs especially when they were being towed to another location. With the number of angry pens ( swan mums) flapping their wings and trying to attack them the Uppers needed some light relief.
How can you see Swan Upping? There are observation points along the way. If you want to get closer you would need to know someone with one of the historic tow boats. In my opinion the best viewing place is Eton Bridge from where they depart at 8.45 — you get to see them standing in their skiffs as they pass Windsor Castle.
For more information about Swan Upping and suggestions about where to watch proceedings, check on the website: www. royalswan. co. uk .
Below: The flotilla reaches Mapledurham.
The beautiful birds require gentle handling.
Spectators on water and land observe the colourful proceedings.
A very English tradition: Swan Uppers at Boulter’s Lock.
The River Thames at Abingdon.