There is a short stretch of the towpath at Sunbury that is marked as a “swan-feeding” area. As you can imagine this is extremely popular, not only with the children who delight in the attention that a swan will give to anybody who throws some food towards it, but also with the swans who collect here to greedily receive the free offerings.
Swan and Cygnets
The river at Sunbury can be a very busy place at the start of the third week of July. This is where the annual “Swan Upping” census of the swans along the river often starts its ceremonial procession upstream, finally finishing at the end of the week at Abingdon.
The origins of “swan-upping” date back to the 12th century, and like so many activities where officialdom becomes involved was not so much about keeping accurate records of how many swans there were on the river, but rather a means whereby the rich and powerful got to keep everything of value for themselves and prevent others from enjoying the same benefits.
The Royal Boat
In the early days all swans were deemed to be the property of the crown, and swans would regularly be taken for royal feasting and banqueting. Later, in the 15th century, ownership of the swans was extended to include two livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers. The illegal taking of swans brought severe penalties of seven years transportation and even as recently as 1895 the penalty for illegally killing a swan was seven years hard labour.
In times gone by the Dyers would mark their swans by making a nick in the beak, whilst those of the Vintners’ Company would be marked with two nicks in the beak. (Hence the seemingly odd pub name “The Swan with Two Nicks”). In a rather neat piece of gamesmanship the Royal Swans would not be marked at all. Depending on your point of view this either shows a humanitarian side to the process by not damaging the swans unnecessarily, or it is part of a devious scam that enabled the crown to also lay claim to any swans that were previously missed during the “upping” because they would not be marked either.
The Dyers Boat
These days the swans are all ringed above the feet with a unique identity to enable more constructive and scientific monitoring of the swan population along the river. The monitoring is carried out by the Zoology Department of Oxford University.
Swan Upping takes place under the direction of the Queen’s Swan Marker. The current holder of this position is David Barber. The marker has his own boat with one skuller with a pair of skulls and two rowers each with one oar, while the Queen’s Boat and those of the Dyers and Vintners are traditional 25 foot Thames skiffs with two rowers each with a pair of oars. The boats fly distinctive pennants, white with a large E.R. for the Queen, blue for the Dyers and red for the Vintners. To make it easier for identification all the officials wear traditional scarlet uniforms.
The skiffs set off upstream from Sunbury to seek out and ring the new cygnets and examine swans that they have marked in previous years.
The Swans are Surrounded
When a family of swans is spotted the cry of “All up” is given and the boats surround the birds and start to nudge them towards the riverbank. The skiffs are pulled together to form a solid corral and the swans are trapped. When the birds arrive at the shallows the boatmen jump into the river and attempt to subdue them by tying their legs together. The swans are then checked for health, identified from their ring markings and weighed. The cygnets are given a new identification ring and they too are measured and weighed. Once the whole family have been checked and weighed they are released back to the water and the boats all set off upstream in search of more swans. During the five days the Uppers will probably tag nearly a hundred cygnets.
That is what happens in theory, but the practise is a little more fun. In reality the nice swan does not want to swim to the bank when rudely shoved in that direction by a boat carrying gaudy flags, and he (or she) does not want any man grabbing hold of their legs and tying them together, and they definitely don’t want some great big red coat grabbing hold of their dearly loved little cygnets and putting nasty rings on their little legs just like the one that has been annoying mummy for years. The result is a lot of hissing, splashing, aggressive flapping of wings and general mayhem. It must be seen to be believed, and a fair-sized crowd usually follows the swan-uppers as they go about their task.
Grab That Swan!
When the flotilla passes Windsor Castle the crews observe a quaint tradition and all the boatmen stand to attention and raise their oars in a salute to the Queen.
After the week is completed the Queen’s Swan Marker will produce a full report including weights and health of each bird that will be used as a census for improving the conservation of the swan population of the river.
Weighing the Swans
The Swan Marker is not just a job for a week, it goes on all year. The marker is also responsible for continually monitoring the swans on the Thames, and also for removing them from areas before regattas and other events that would cause the swans some stress if they were allowed to remain.
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