The English love keeping up ancient traditions. Swan-upping which originated over 600 years is certainly one of these. Apart from its conservation element, swan-upping is a great opportunity to put on a colourful display of pageantry. To spend time watching the flotilla of boats passing by, manned by watermen in livery of red, white or blue, is well worthwhile.
Like many ancient English traditions its origins are based on protecting the rights of the rich and powerful. Centuries ago the swan was considered a culinary delight, but owning swans was a privilige initially restricted to the Crown who then extended ownership to two City Livery companies; The Company of Vintners and the Company of Dyers. At one time any unauthorised person found guilty of killing a swan could be sentenced to transportation for seven years and even up to 1895 could receive seven years hard labour. Thankfully the swan is no longer seen as a source of food and such punishment no longer applies. Instead we have the pleasure of watching an ancient ceremony.
The Swan-upping ceremony developed as the means by which the Crown, the Vintners and the Dyers identified their particular swans. For centuries the Vintners marked their birds by putting a nick on each side of the beaks, the Dyers putting one nick only, whilst the Crown's birds went unmarked.
This practice is no longer continued. Instead the birds are marked by an identifying ring around their legs.
Swan-upping takes place along the Thames during the third week of July, starting on Monday at Sunbury and concluding at Abingdon on Friday. It is organised by the Royal Swan Keeper, a position that dates from 1295. The present holder is Mr David Barber.
Swan-upping commences with an assembly of boats, each flying an identifying flag. The boats of the livery companies are 25ft long double skiffs, each manned by two watermen handling a pair of sculls.
The Queen's Swan Keeper sits at the stern of a randan propelled by one man with a pair of sculls and two others each working a single scull.They are accompanied by classic motorboats
The search is then on to find all the year's new cygnets and their parents. The fun begins once a family has been spotted, the flotilla of rowing boats surrounds the swans and gradually nudges them towards the riverbank.Some of the watermen jump out of their boats into the shallows to catch each bird.Very gently its legs are tied together. This has a great calming effect on the swan. The swan is lifted onto dry land and examined to ensure that it is healthy.Each of the cygnets is marked with identifying tags on its legs.Then they are measured and weighed. Once every statistic has been recorded the family swans are given a final check-over then released.
Boats reassemble and continue on their way upstream looking for the next family. During the week they will mark and check between 70 - 90 cygnets and will update records on the numbers and well-being of the swan population as a whole. So although this is a great spectacle to watch it has benefits for the long term future of the swans as well as being entertaining and fascinating for onlookers.