Evergreen - - Contents - Bar­bara Both­well

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.

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