17 Jul 2012

No Swans Will Be Upped This Year

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“Swan Upping in 1875” from Life on the Upper Thames

The Guardian reports that the Thames is currently in flood, and there will be no swan upping this year.

Queen’s swan marker says water is too high and too fast to safely carry out annual census dating back to 12th century

The ancient ceremony of swan upping, the annual census of the bird by the Queen’s official swan marker on the Thames, has been cancelled, possibly for the first time in its history, owing to flood conditions. …

David Barber, the Queen’s swan marker for 20 years, said he informed the palace that the water was “too high, and too fast” for the upping to be conducted safely.

“As far as we know it has never been cancelled before, maybe not for hundreds of years,” he said. “It is a real disappointment. We will now have to miss a year, which is diabolical for us.”

The census is seen as a useful conservation activity as checks are made on the health of the birds, especially cygnets which are weighed and measured. The young birds are at particular risk of being caught in fishing tackle, and the cancellation meant extra vigilance would be required to ensure no cygnets suffered as a result, Barber said.

The swan upping ceremony was originally a way of marking ownership, at a time when the birds were regarded as a delicious dish at banquets and feasts.

Each day of the week-long event, the boats seek out broods. The first to sight a brood shouts “all up!”, the traditional call warning all the boats to get into position to catch the swans. When the birds are caught, the marks on the parent swans’ beaks are examined to establish ownership.

As the swan uppers pass Windsor Castle, they stand to attention in their boats with oars raised to salute “Her Majesty the Queen, seigneur of the swans”.

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Wikipedia explains:

[T]he Monarch of the United Kingdom retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but only exercises ownership on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This dates from the 12th century, during which time swans were a common food source for royalty. Swan upping is a means of establishing a swan census, and today also serves to check the health of swans. Under a Royal Charter of the 15th century, the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company, two Livery Companies of the City of London, are entitled to share in the Sovereign’s ownership. They conduct the census through a process of ringing the swan’s feet, but the swans are no longer eaten.

Swan upping occurs annually during the third week of July. During the ceremony, the Queen’s, the Vintners’, and the Dyers’ Swan Uppers row up the river in skiffs. Swans caught by the Queen’s Swan Uppers under the direction of the Swan Marker are unmarked, except for a ring linked to the database of the British Trust For Ornithology (BTO). Those caught by the Dyers’ and Vintners are identified as theirs by means of a further ring on the other leg. Today, only swans with cygnets are caught and ringed. This gives a yearly snapshot as to how well (or not) Thames swans are breeding. Originally, rather than being ringed, the swans would be marked on the bill — a practice commemorated in the pub name The Swan with Two Necks, a corruption of the term “The Swan with Two Nicks”.

On 20 July, 2009 H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, as “Seigneur of the Swans,” attended the Swan Upping ceremony for the first time in her reign, and the first time that a monarch has watched the ceremony in centuries.

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