July is not a popular month with swans on the river Thames! Every year in the third week, men take to the river in traditional wooden skiffs, dressed in colourful garb and feather-adorned caps, to track down and pluck from the water these familiar British birds. Although this had a more sinister purpose in days gone by – to lay claim to the best birds to serve for dinner at grand banquets – today it is a more sedate and less-threatening affair.
One of Her Majesty’s Swan Upping skiffs flying her Royal cypher
For this is Swan Upping week: the annual census of mute swans that inhabit the Thames. I joined the Swan Uppers on the second day of this year’s event accompanied by cameraman Raj Yagnik to capture the ceremony for next year’s special exhibition Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames (April-September 2012) in which we will feature this ancient and peculiar rite. The event was led by David Barber, in his 19th year as The Queen’s Swan Marker, whose scarlet and gold blazer brightened up a gloomy morning at Eton riverside.
David Barber, Marker of The Queen’s Swans, being interviewed on board the press boat
Dating back to at least the 15th century, Swan Upping in the past was about claiming the right to own swans on the river. The ownership of unmarked swans belonged to the monarch, who could also grant the right of ownership to others. Some aristocratic families, institutions and guilds were given these rights which were asserted at Swan Upping when the swans would be rounded up and marked with unique notches cut into their beaks.
Today, the cutting of beaks has ceased – Queen Alexandra worried about the unnecessary pain and distress it caused – and only two City Livery Companies, the Vintners‘ and Dyers‘, maintain their right to own swans, alongside Her Majesty the Queen. At this time of the year the companies come together with the Crown, crewing six skiffs between them, to make the 79-mile journey between Sunbury in Surrey and Abingdon in Oxfordshire searching for the season’s new cygnets…
Much of my morning Swan Upping was spent in the press boat taking a leisurely journey up the Thames, admiring the quirky spectacle and taking in the beauty of a river which it is hard to believe passes through one of the busiest cities in the world. Meanwhile the Swan Uppers alongside us were rowing at a reasonable pace while keeping their eyes peeled for young swans. After turning a bend in the river one of the watermen cried ‘All Up’, and sure enough a group of swans – two parent birds and six cygnets – were spotted greedily devouring bread being offered by day-trippers on the bank. Swan Upping was once described to me as ‘all feathers and blood’ so as the men sprang into action, corralling the group between the skiffs and the bank, I expected much hissing of tongues, gnashing of beaks and beady eyes filled with terror.
Swan Upping skiffs corralling the swans against the bank
On this occasion though, the fearsome swan crooks for hooking the birds from the water (think fishing for ducks at the fairground) were not needed and the swans were relatively easily lifted from the water with little distress, few feathers and absolutely no blood shed – by swan or Swan Upper! The feet of each bird were tied to demobilize them and then they were taken ashore for ringing (which replaces beak-cutting). The cygnets were the cutest things – grey fluff and stubby wings (no ugly ducklings, Hans Christian Andersen) – and were anxiously watched by their parents (also taken from the water) as they were weighed and measured, under the direction of The Queen’s Warden of the Swans, Professor Christopher Perrins. After meeting the locals, the swans were returned to the water and the band of Swan Uppers went on its way.
Professor Perrins, The Queen’s Swan Warden, measuring this year’s cygnets, with David Barber explaining the process in the foreground
We saw very few swans in this session; apparently swans on the Thames have a more fearsome adversary this year than the men in colourful coats. Duck Virus Enteritis or ‘Duck Plague‘ has struck mute swans on the Thames and is having a significant effect on their numbers. At times like this you realise that the work of the Swan Uppers is not just about tradition and show; they fulfil a valuable conservation, education and welfare role which will help us to understand the spread and impact of this dreadful disease and to hopefully confirm the recovery of the population of these iconic birds on the river Thames.