Country Customs: Swan Upping
If you're messing about on the Thames next week, you may be in for a surprise as the swans are counted
How do you up a swan?
Swan upping is a way of recording the ownership of swans on British waterways. This tradition dates back to medieval times when mute swans were claimed as royal birds. They were also a prized source of meat and quills in the Tudor period, and companies wishing to raise them had to ask for permission from the monarch. The worshipful companies of the Dyers and Vitners continue the practice today.
Every July, in order to distinguish between the flocks of swans, a party of men head out on the river in six wooden skiffs and count the swans, upping or marking them as they go. When a group of cygnets are sighted the scarlet-clothed boatmen cry “All up!” which gives a signal for the boats to surround the birds. As in the days of Henry VIII, unmarked swans continue to be the property of the crown.
But why bother today?
Although it seems like an unnecessary practice today, it does in fact have a modern use. Swans live for an average of 11 years and the ceremony is a chance for her majesty’s swan marker, David Barber, to record numbers and treat any injuries the swans may have. This allows the population to be regulated. In the 1980s there was a noticeable decrease in the number of swans due to poisoning from anglers’ lead weights, but action was taken and the population recovered.
The annual ritual usually takes several days, and during this time there are several toasts to Queen and country.