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Swan upping: The strangest ritual on the Thames

Photo: Jun (Flickr: Toasting the Queen)

Photo: Jun (Flickr: Toasting the Queen)


Jen Bartram
Digital News Editor

Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 10:11 AM -

A traditional, if odd, British ceremony is taking place in July, which involves six rowing boats, thousands of swans, and a toast to Queen Elizabeth II – it's known as Seigneur of the Swans!

The annual Swan Upping ceremony takes place on a stretch of the Thames during the third week of July. This ancient ceremony dates back to the 12th century, when swans would have been a delicious main course on any upper class dinner table.

During this time, the Crown declared ownership of all mute swans in open water. Although they are no longer on the menu, the royal right to the birds remains, shared since the 15th century with the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers.

Nowadays, the Crown’s right to the birds is only exercised on certain stretches of the Thames, where, every July, the birds are counted and monitored during the Swan Upping Ceremony.

Steeped in tradition, this ornithological survey is carried out by teams of ‘Swan Uppers’ wearing scarlet uniforms. They row along the Thames from Sunbury to Abingdon in wooden rowing skiffs adorned with flags and pennants, pausing as they pass Windsor Castle to stand up and salute Her Majesty the Queen, Seigneur of the Swans.

The wooden boats aren’t just traditional, though. Water on wood makes a softer sound and is less distressing to the little cygnets than metal boats with engines.

During the survey, whenever a brood of cygnets is spotted, a cry of ‘All up!’ is given – a signal for the boats to converge around the birds, surrounding them. The uppers round up the birds, restrain the distressed parents and pick up the babies, measuring their beaks and weighing them by hand before putting them back in the water. Adult birds are ringed and checked for injuries.

Photo: Bill Tyne (Flickr: Swan upping at Henley)

Photo: Bill Tyne (Flickr: Swan upping at Henley)

This year, there is concern that the number of cygnets may be lower than usual, due to the devastating floods from last winter. David Barber holds the prestigious title of the Queen’s Swan Marker and leads the team. He told the Guardian that the baby birds may not have been strong enough to survive the strong currents caused by the endless rain:

"We've had problems with the flooding earlier in the season which sent young cygnets over the weirs, which was pretty disastrous."

As well as flooding, the birds are also at risk from other animals, such as dogs, as well as power lines and discarded fishing equipment.

The Swan Uppers will travel 79 miles in five days, monitoring hundreds of birds on this stretch of the Thames.

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