Swanning down the Thames
PUBLISHED: 15:57 24 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013
It's one of the most colourful sights on the river and it's happening this month. Carol Evans explores the ancient tradition of swan upping...
Images: Sue Milton
Summer on the river Thames is always a busy time, but one of the most colourful and historic spectacles takes place each July and it's known as the annual Swan Upping ceremony.
Rowers in six traditional skiffs, representing the Queen and two of the City of London's ancient livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers, head upstream between Sunbury and Abingdon to count the swan population.
The flotilla is led by the two royal boats, one of which bears the Queen's Swan Marker, David Barber, resplendent in scarlet and gold-braided blazer and sporting a swan's feather in his cap. His crews - two swan uppers to each boat - are also scarlet-clad.
The two-man crews in the other skiffs are recognisable by their livery company's colours: white tops for the Vintners and blue for the Dyers.
As the fleet passes through Romney Lock at Windsor, everybody stands to attention in their boats and with oars raised, salute "Her Majesty the Queen, Seigneur of the Swans." A toast is also raised at Abingdon to mark the ceremonial end.
The annual swan census dates back to the 12th century when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans to ensure a ready supply of the delicacy for feasts and banquets.
Today, the Crown retains the right to all mute swans in open water but the Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames. This ownership is shared with the Vintners and Dyers, who were granted rights in the 15th century.
During their five-day journey upstream, the swan uppers - all highly skilled Thames Watermen with swan handling expertise - seek out families of swans along the 79-mile stretch of river.
When a brood is sighted, the call 'all up' is the signal for the boats to surround the family group. The birds are then carefully lifted up (hence the term 'upping') onto the bank where the cygnets are weighed, measured and then ringed with the same ownership identification tags as their parents. The swans are given a health check and fitted with an individual number tag by the Queen's Swan Warden, Professor Christopher Perrins, professor of Ornithology at Oxford University, before being released.
Up until just ten years ago, swan ownership was denoted by scoring identifying marks into their beaks with a sharp knife. Vintners' birds were marked with two 'nicks,' the Dyers' birds with just one. Royal swans' beaks remained unmarked.
Swan Upping always takes place in the third week of July when the cygnets are around two months old. The swan uppers usually reckon to tag around 130 cygnets, although this can vary from year to year.
Last year, numbers were lower than usual because many had died when floods washed away their nests. According to Mr Barber's office, however, more swans die from fishing tackle injuries than other hazards. As a result, he is keen to involve school children in the swan upping process, seeing it as an ideal opportunity to alert them to the risks these and other river birds face through fishing.
School children this year will be learning about the historic ceremony and its implications at Oakley Court Hotel, near Windsor on the Tuesday morning, July 16 and at The Compleat Angler at Marlow on Wednesday, July 16.
Where to see it all
You can see the swan uppers all along the Thames between Sunbury and Abingdon from Monday, July 14 to Friday, July 18. This is where they will be in Berkshire and south Oxfordshire (all timings are approximate.)
Romney Lock - Monday, July 14, 17.30
Boveney Lock - Tuesday, July 15, 10.15
Boulters Lock - Tuesday, July 15, 13.00
Marlow Lock - Tuesday, July 15, 17.30
Hurley Lock - Wednesday, July 16, 10.30
Hambleden Lock - Wednesday, July 16, 12.00
Marsh Lock - Wednesday, July 16, 16.00
Shiplake Lock - Wednesday, July 16, 17.00
Caversham Lock - Thursday, July 17, 10.30
Mapledurham Lock - Thursday, July 17, 12.30
Goring Lock - Thursday, July 17, 17.00
Six swan facts
Mute swans are recognisable by their long, graceful S-shape necks and orange beaks with a black knob at the base. Although not 'mute' as their name suggests, they nevertheless grunt, snort and hiss, albeit in hushed tones.
The term 'swan song' originated from an ancient belief that the mute swan was utterly silent throughout its life until the moment before it died when it emitted a beautiful ethereal-type melody.
For centuries, swans' beaks were marked with very complicated designs to denote ownership. The practice was stopped in the early 1900s by Queen Alexandra who was concerned that such detailed artistry, carved by a sharp knife, caused the bird pain.
At one time, any unauthorised person found guilty of killing a swan was sentenced to transportation and, even up to 1895, could receive seven years hard labour. In Queen Elizabeth I's reign anyone caught stealing swans' eggs, could be jailed for a year.
At the completion of swan upping each year, the Queen's Swan Marker produces a report which provides information on the number of swans accounted for, including broods and cygnets. The data enables conservation methods to be used to protect the swans.
A serious decline in the swan population in the mid-1980s was halted by the replacement of led fishing weights with a non-toxic equivalent.