A flotilla of traditional Thames rowing skiffs, manned by Swan Uppers in scarlet rowing shirts and headed by The Queen’s Swan Marker, wearing a hat with a white swan’s feather, row their way steadily up the Thames. ‘All up!’ they cry as a family of swans and cygnets is spotted, and the Swan Uppers carefully position their boats around the swans, lift them from the water and check their health. The Swan Marker’s iconic five-day journey upriver has been an annual ceremony for hundreds of years, and today it has two clear goals: conservation and education.
The History of Swan Upping
As early as the twelfth century, the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans in the country because the birds were highly valued as a delicacy at banquets and feasts. In the fifteenth century The Worshipful Company of Dyers and The Worshipful Company of Vintners were given the right to own swans on the River Thames. They have maintained their swan marks to the present day and therefore share ownership of mute swans on the River Thames with The Queen.
Swan Upping Today
Swans are, of course, no longer eaten, but Swan Upping still takes place once a year on the River Thames. The Swan Uppers weigh and measure the cygnets and check them for any signs of injury, commonly caused by fishing hooks and line. The young cygnets are ringed with individual identification numbers that denote their ownership if they belong to the Dyers or the Vintners, depending on their parentage. However, all Crown birds are left unmarked. The Queen retains the right to claim ownership of any unmarked mute swan swimming in open waters; but this right is mainly exercised on certain stretches of the River Thames.
Although Members of the Royal Family are not usually present during Swan Upping, The Queen watched Swan Upping in person in 2009.
The Queen’s Swan Warden, who is a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford, collates the data recorded during Swan Upping. At the end of the journey, the Swan Marker will compile an official report regarding the swan population which enables suitable conservation methods to be implemented.
Today, education is a very important part of Swan Upping and children from local schools visit the riverbank each year to watch the Swan Uppers and learn about swans and their cygnets. Working together with the River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, learning resources have been developed about Swan Upping that cover subjects as varied as biology, geography, history and ecology. The Swan Marker also visits local schools to explain the importance of the conservation effort.
You can find out more about Swan Upping, and how the Swan Marker works with local schools, on the Royal Swan website.