Swan Upping

The annual census of the swan population on a particular stretch of the River Thames, Swan Upping has changed from a mostly ceremonial event to an important element of wildlife conservation

Introduction

A flotilla of traditional Thames rowing skiffs, manned by Swan Uppers in scarlet rowing shirts and headed by The King’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.



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 Vintners or the Dyers livery companies; they cygnets’ ownership is determined by their parentage. However, all Crown birds are left unmarked.  The King 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.

History and the law

The Crown has held the right to claim ownership of all unmarked mute swans swimming in open waters throughout the country from as far back as the twelfth century.  Historically, valuable rights of ownership were subsequently granted by the monarch to many people and organisations as swans were a prized food, served at banquets and feasts.  Today, of course, swans are no longer eaten and are a protected species.

Apart from the Crown, there are only three organisations that have retained their right of ownership of mute swans and maintained their unique swan marks.  Originally, marks were made on the top of the swan’s beak, and were recorded within a swan roll made of velum.  Current day ownership marks are made by way of a small numbered leg ring but all Crown birds are left unmarked.  Abbotsbury Swannery was granted the right of ownership in the fourteenth century and two London livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers, have held similar rights since the fifteenth century.  



Many hundreds of years ago there were severe penalties for injuring or killing a swan.  A criminal could face imprisonment for one year and a day for even stealing swan eggs.  Today, the Crown’s right of ownership exists by Royal prerogative.



Notes for Taxidermists

The law relating to ownership of mute swans applies to dead as well as live birds and to any parts thereof.  Permission may be granted via The King’s Swan Marker for a dead mute swan or mute swan parts to be used for educational purposes; however, under the terms of such a permission, it/they may not be sold for profit but an educational establishment or museum may be permitted to pay a taxidermist for their work.  Furthermore, any appropriate documentation should be retained as evidence of the existence and terms of any permission.  More information can be obtained from The Office of The King’s Swan Marker, at [email protected].

 

Conservation

Conservation is very important to the swan population on the River Thames and their protection is vitally important to their continued survival.  The increasing use of rivers for boating, fishing and other recreational activities severely inhibits the swans’ natural habitat. Steel and concrete, used to prevent the erosion of river banks, results in the disappearance of river weed and reed beds that historically have provided the natural habitat on which swans feed and nest.

Predation by creatures such as mink, which can destroy a family of young cygnets, has increased significantly in recent years, along with birds of prey, foxes and domestic dogs.  Man has also had a devastating impact upon the mute swan population; swans are commonly being shot and killed and their nests and eggs destroyed.  Continuing efforts are being made to educate people about the environment in which they live and the sanctity of the wildlife that surrounds them.  Whenever possible, injured swans are rescued, rehabilitated and released back to the wild.

Swans are also at risk of injuries caused by discarded fishing tackle that can result in a slow and painful death.  Although the majority of fishermen are careful, those who do not respect the river and its wildlife cause immense problems and suffering.  

The King’s Swan Marker advises on the co-ordination of the removal of swans from rivers while rowing regattas take place, to avoid injuries being sustained by swans and young cygnets during the racing.  He also works closely with swan rescue organisations based on the River Thames and co-ordinates the movement of swans when necessary for their protection or safety.

 

Education

Education plays a significant part of Swan Upping in July each year.  Many children from local primary schools visit the Swan Markers and Swan Uppers at several locations along the banks of the River Thames as they travel on their journey upstream to Abingdon.  

The children have the opportunity to learn about the biology of swans, the habitat they need to survive, the river and the boats and equipment used by the Swan Uppers.  The Royal connection with swans is always of great interest to the children who take part in a question and answer session hosted by the Swan Markers, during which they demonstrate the knowledge they have gained from studying Swan Upping in school before their visit.  The children also have the opportunity to view cygnets at very close quarters which is always a highlight of their day.  

The King’s Swan Marker works closely with the River & Rowing Museum educational department based at Henley on Thames.  The joint development of a Swan Upping box for the Reading Museum Loan Box Scheme facilitates learning in a wide range of disciplines around the subject of Swan Upping in the classroom.

For enquiries regarding educational talks given by The King’s Swan Marker please visit www.royalswan.co.uk or email [email protected].

 

Related content

The Queen's message to the Institution of Engineering and Technology to mark their 150th anniversary

This anniversary provides an opportunity to thank and recognise the dedication and hard work of all those working in engineering and technology who, every day, make a...

06 October 2021

The Queen's address at the Opening Ceremony of the sixth session of the Scottish Parliament

I have spoken before of my deep and abiding affection for this wonderful country, and of the many happy memories Prince Philip and I always held of our time here.

02 October 2021

The Queen's message to mark Canada's first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

I join with all Canadians on this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

30 September 2021

The Queen's message to Emma Raducanu following her US Open win

It is a remarkable achievement at such a young age, and is testament to your hard work and dedication.

11 September 2021

The Queen's message to mark the 20th anniversary of the 11th September attacks

We pay tribute to the resilience and determination of the communities who joined together to rebuild.

11 September 2021

The Queen's message to British and Commonwealth athletes following the 2020 Paralympic Games

Your performances have lifted the nation and your triumphs been celebrated by us all.

05 September 2021

A message of condolence from Her Majesty The Queen to the Prime Minister of Haiti

I am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life and destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti. My thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost their lives, loved ones...

16 August 2021

The Princess Royal congratulates Team GB athletes and staff on their Olympic success

Everyone involved in Team GB has played a significant role in a magnificent performance

10 August 2021

The Queen's message to TeamGB and Commonwealth athletes following the 2020 Olympic Games

The skill, determination and hard work shown by the athletes and their support teams throughout the unique and challenging circumstances of the last year has been an...

09 August 2021
Feature

The Duke of Kent reflects on his Presidency of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in an article for The Telegraph

His Royal Highness reflects on what makes the championships so special
Press release 06 July 2021

Announcement of a new Governor General of Canada

Read more
Media pack

Financial reports 2020-21

The Royal Household today published its annual financial statement, the Sovereign Grant Report, for the financial year 2020-21.

Press release 22 June 2021

Swan Upping 2021

Read more
Feature

Platinum Jubilee Emblem Competition launched

On behalf of The Queen, The V&A has launched a competition for budding UK artists
Press release 04 June 2021

The Queen's Official Birthday

Read more
Feature

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Central Weekend 2022

A central weekend of events and festivities will mark HM's 70 years on the throne.
Feature

The Queen's Jubilees and other milestones

Find out more about how Her Majesty's reign has been celebrated at key moments.
Feature

A history of Jubilees

Royal Jubilees are an occasion to celebrate the life and reign of a Monarch.

A speech delivered by Prince William as Lord High Commissioner during the Opening Ceremony of the CofS

A speech delivered by Prince William in his role as Lord High Commissioner during the Opening Ceremony of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

22 May 2021
Feature

The Queen's Green Canopy

A unique tree planting initiative will allow people to mark the Jubilee across the UK.

Message to the people of Northern Ireland

Across generations, the people of Northern Ireland are choosing to build an inclusive, prosperous, and hopeful society, strengthened by the gains of the peace process.

02 May 2021
Feature

The Patriarchs – An Elegy

By Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate

A message from The Earl of Wessex on the legacy of his father, The Duke of Edinburgh.

I, like all my family, have a lifetime of lasting impressions.

15 April 2021

A speech by The Duke of Edinburgh on ‘Inter-face / User and Machine' at the RSA Conference, 6 November 2002

I think it is pretty well known that I have always been a great supporter of science and engineering and I have considerable respect for the technologies, which they have...

06 November 2002

A message from The Duke of Cambridge following the death of The Duke of Edinburgh

My grandfather’s century of life was defined by service – to his country and Commonwealth, to his wife and Queen, and to our family.

12 April 2021

A statement from The Princess Royal following the death of The Duke of Edinburgh

It is his example of a life well lived and service freely given that I most wanted to emulate.

11 April 2021
Feature

Mourning

Information about National and Royal Mourning

A message from Her Majesty The Queen to mark Greece's Bicentenary Independence Day celebrations

On the significant occasion of the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, I would like to convey to Your Excellency my congratulations, together...

25 March 2021