Swan census mixes pagentry, science

A swan upper carries a cygnet during Swan Upping, the annual census of the swan population on a particular stretch of the River Thames in west London. Monday was the start of the census, a tradition dating to the 12th century.

? “All up!” goes a cry, and the scarlet-clad boatmen close in on the family of swans.

The two white adults and their brood of fluffy gray cygnets struggle in vain as they are grabbed, trussed and grappled to shore. They don’t know it, but they are playing their part in a centuries-old royal tradition.

Monday saw the start of Swan Upping, a five-day annual census of River Thames swans that mixes science and ceremony.

Since the 12th century – when the graceful birds were served as a delicacy at royal feasts – the monarch has had ownership rights over all mute swans on British waterways.

“In reality, these days we only claim swans on the River Thames,” said David Barber, an official who bears a scarlet tunic, a captain’s hat crowned with a white feather and the splendid title of Queen’s Swan Marker.

The purpose of the census has changed as well. Once, it was used to identify food. Now, Barber says, “it is a conservation and education exercise.”

It retains its royal pomp and pageantry, however. The third week of every July, Barber leads a team of boatmen up the river in traditional open skiffs flying royal flags and standards. Clad in white trousers and red jerseys marked with the insignia of Queen Elizabeth II, they are called Swan Uppers. The reason, Barber explained, is rather prosaic.

“Swan upping is the method of going up the river and upping the swans from the water,” he said.

The royal uppers are accompanied by boats representing the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, ancient London trade guilds that were granted ownership of some Thames swans in the 15th century. The reasons for this have been lost, as the records were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London.

They are searching for cygnets, young swans born in the spring. When a brood is spotted, boatmen yell “all up,” and the boats close in.

Under the supervision of professor Christopher Perrins, an Oxford University ornithologist and the queen’s official swan warden, the uppers tie the young birds by the legs and wrestle them into boats or onto shore. There they are weighed, have heads measured from back to beak, and are tagged around the ankle with an identifying number.

Within minutes, they are back in the water, flustered but unhurt.

Barber says the census serves a valuable purpose in monitoring the health of the swan population. In the 1980s, swan uppers noticed a sharp decline in the population. The culprit was identified as lead fishing weights, which were poisoning the birds. They were banned, and numbers rebounded.

Veteran uppers have noticed big changes in the river over the years.

“It’s a hell of a lot cleaner, for one thing,” said Alex Collins, who has been taking part for 37 years. He has seen the decline of commercial traffic on the Thames, and an increasing number of pleasure craft. Fish are returning in large numbers, and the swan population has grown.

Despite the event’s serious side, a regatta atmosphere prevails as the flotilla of small boats makes its way along the river from Sunbury, on the fringes of London, to Abingdon, 80 miles upstream. Small crowds gather along the banks and at locks to wave and snap photographs.

When the boats pass the royal residence at Windsor Castle later Monday, the uppers will stand and hold their oars aloft in a salute to “Her Majesty the Queen, Seigneur of the Swans.”