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The story of the annual Swan Upping event

The story of the annual Swan Upping event

A long-held tradition, the Royal Swan Upping is a colourful and educational five-day event that takes place every summer—this year starting on July 17

The UK is a country defined by history and long traditions. Even the UK’s approximately 32,000 resident swans that live in rivers, parks and waters throughout the country, are affected.

Status of the UK’s swans

These graceful birds that are the biggest species of water fowl, have a specific status. It is a widespread belief that they belong to the respective monarch. However, this is not completely true. Since medieval times, the king or queen does have a prerogative right over all unmarked mute swans on the River Thames.

"Since medieval times, the king or queen has had a prerogative right over all unmarked mute swans on the River Thames"

In other words, they can claim the swans whenever they like, and the same applied, by the way, to dolphins. But we are here concerned with the swans and specific rituals that apply to them, one of them, and the most colourful being what is known as the “Swan Upping”.

Species of swans

Three species of swans in wild state are found in UK: the biggest is the mute swan, followed by the whooper and the Bewick’s. Whereas the mute swan is native and breeds in the UK, the other two are migrants and winter visitors—the whooper coming from Iceland and Scandinavia in autumn, when the weather gets cold in their native habitat, and the Bewick’s from as far away as Siberia.

Despite their size and weight, all swans can fly rather long distances and their flock is called a wedge or bevy. Baby swans are called cygnets, male swans are cobs and female ones are pens. Sometimes the exotic black swan can also be seen in the wild, but they originate from Australia.

Who is the King’s Swan Marker?

Swan Upping flag on boatA Swan Upping event flag on a boat in Abingdon, 2011. Credit: Jun

In medieval times, swans were actually a delicacy, much appreciated by common folks as well as at the royal table. Of course, swans aren’t eaten anymore, much the opposite—they are being cared for, protected, counted and preserved. This is the job of the Swan Marker, who is an officer of the Royal Household and under command of the respective monarch, tasked with all things swans.

For 30 years, this prestigious post was held by David Barber. Upon the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III inherited the prerogative rights over the swans and Mr Barber continued with his position, now called the King’s Swan Marker. He is distinguished by his bright red coat and a swan feather he wears on his cap.

The Royal Swan Upping

Swan Upping cornering swans to tag themThe Swan Upping boats surrounding swans on the Thames. Credit: Philip Allfrey

This is a colourful event that takes place each year for five days on the River Thames, this year starting on July 17. 

Headed by the Swan Marker, a flotilla of traditional Thames skiffs, manned by the so-called Swan Uppers in royal, bright red rowing shirts, rows slowly up the river—starting in Sunbury-on-Thames, past Windsor and ending in Abingdon Bridge. The Swan Uppers watch out for all swans and especially the cygnets. If they spot a family of family floating in the water of the river, they shout out “all up”. Then they position their skiffs carefully around the flock and even more carefully lift the cygnets out of the water onto the grass of the river bank.

"Swan Uppers examine swans for their health and injuries—the cygnets are ringed and put back while the adults are left unmarked"

There they are examined for their health and possible injuries, and to be brought if treatment if needed. At this young age, cygnets are delicate and vulnerable. If all is well, the young swans are ringed and put back. The adults are left unmarked.

Thus, the numbers of young swans can be recorded and their growth can be tracked. As can be imagined, the whole process is time consuming, which is why this is a five-day event.

Popularity

This yearly event is announced well in advance and attracts visitors and spectators of all ages, who line the river along the route of the Swan Uppers so as not to miss this centuries-old ceremony and spectacle.

Of course, July is a very appropriate time of the year, because the weather is generally warm, dry and sunny. Pouring rain would be bad for the swans, the rowers and the spectators.

Purpose of the Swan Upping

Swan Upping at Henley
A Swan Upper carrying a swan at Henley. Credit: Bill Tyne

The purpose of the ceremony is three-fold. It keeps track of the swan population of the River Thames, it helps the conservation and protection of the birds, and finally it provides education. Many schools are invited to meet the Swan Uppers on their journey along the river, and the children have the opportunity to ask questions and see swans and cygnets up close—learning  how swans live and where they breed.

"Many schools are invited to meet the Swan Uppers on their journey along the river, and children can ask questions and see swans up close"

A great role in education is played by the River & Rowing Museum in Henley on Thames, that provides projects for primary schools to further their education. This is not only about swans, but also about the wildlife and ecosystem of the River Thames, which is part of their heritage.

As Mr Barber told the BBC in September 2022, the Queen had taken a “grand interest” in wildlife and the swan population and added that King Charles is “very keen on conservation” and “hopefully he will take a nice interest in the swan population”.

Banner credit: Colin Marshall Nature Photography

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