Heather's Monthly Articles
December 2013



So what's on your dining table this Christmas? Turkey? Goose? Duck? Chicken? One thing's for certain, it won't be Swan. At least it better not be in you live in the U.K. for all wild mute British Swans belong to the Monarch and slaying or injuring one is tantamount to treason. Not that there's a great call nowadays for roasted Swan, they've been a protected species for such a long time that eating them is frowned upon. Which wasn't always the case.

A cygnet is lifted for inspection
by a Queen's Swan Upper.

In Elizabethan times Swans were an immensely popular dish, especially in Royal circles. Their quills were also much in demand as writing tools. They were said to last 50 times longer than goose quills. In order to preserve them for their own gratification the monarchy declared Swans off limits and anyone caught catching one was sent to the Tower. Nowadays, with the Tower of London being turned into a major tourist attraction, the penalties are a little more lenient; a £5,000 fine or six months in jail.

The Queen's Swan Uppers prepare to leave
Shepperton Lock.

The Crown's ownership of all mute swans dates back to the twelfth century. Three hundred years later, the Crown granted a special dispensation to two livery companies: Vintners and Dyers; trade groups of wine merchants and cloth dyers, to whom it was reputed Henry IV was in debt. Since that time these "Most Worshipful Companies" have accompanied the British sovereign's Swan-Master and Swan-Warden along the River Thames from London to Oxford, marking and weighing all cygnets allotted by birth-right to one or other of the companies. This annual census of the swan population, which takes place the third week of July is known as "Swan-upping".

The Queen and Swan Marker, David
Barber talking to school children.

The expression "upping" has multiple origins. Not only might it refer to the practice of calling the birds, then upturning them into boats for the purposes of marking them, but also to the journey itself. At the lock closest to Window Castle, the boats come to a halt, in order that the rowers might stand to attention in their boats, raise their oars and give a toast of salute to the reigning sovereign as "Seignior of the Swan". Only once in living memory, however, has the reigning Monarch been present to accept the toast. That was in 2009 when Queen Elizabeth II visited the Thames to watch the swan-uppers count her swans.

The Loyal Toast in Romney Lock.

The five-day journey takes place in six shallow, flat-bottomed open boats with sharp bows and square sterns, known as "skiffs". Each boat is regally decorated with flags and pennants. The Queen's boat displaying what you might call a little "swan-up-manship" has two flags, the others just one. The Queen's Swan Uppers can be distinguished from the Swan Uppers of Vintners' and Dyers' by the traditional scarlet uniforms they wear. When a brood of cygnets is sighted, a cry of "All up!" is given to signal that the boats should get into position. The swan uppers make a circle with their boats to hem the swans to the bank and the swans are carefully lifted from the water. Their legs and wings are tied gently with hemp twine so the birds can't injure themselves. The swans and their cygnets are then taken ashore to be weighed and examined for any sign of injury – usually caused by fishing hooks and line, but sometimes also by vandalism, or toxic chemicals.

The swans are also given a health check and ringed with individual identification numbers by The Queen's Swan Warden, a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford's Department of Zoology. On being given the all clear, they are returned to the river and the procession of boats continues its swan search up-river.

On average, the uppers this year found more than 30 swans a day, details of which the Queen's Swan Marker puts into a detailed report, which is analyzed and used for conservation purposes.

To contact Heather:
E-mail: heather@mpt.org
Address: Afternoon Tea
Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117


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