Queen Elizabeth’s 800-year-old beloved royal tradition returns to the Thames

The queen attends the annual swan upping

Sang Tan / PA Images / Getty The Queen attends the annual Swan Upping in 2009

Queen Elizabeth enjoys all kinds of historical advantages from her position as monarch, but one of the most unusual is that she has the right to own any swan swimming in open water in the whole of the UK.

“I could go to Wales or any part of England or Scotland and say, ‘this swan belongs to Her Majesty’ and take it. That would be it,” said David Barber, who holds the former title of Royal Swan Marker.

Fortunately, while British monarchs have “owned” the UK swan population since AD ​​966 and King Edgar’s reign “The Peaceful”, these days the Queen is only exercising her right. along a 79 mile section of the Thames stretching from Sunbury -on-Thames (approximately 15 miles south-west of central London) to the historic market town of Abingdon in Oxfordshire.

The queen attends the annual swan upping

The queen attends the annual swan upping

Sang Tan / PA Images / Getty The Queen attends the annual Swan Upping in 2009

While Edgar and many subsequent British monarchs used their right to cook and eat the birds at extravagant royal feasts, the Queen now only does so to conduct an annual census of the swan population on the Thames thanks to a ancient process called Swan Upping which dates back to the 12th century.

“Swan Upping is all about conservation,” adds Barber, who completed a three-day COVID-limited bird count on Thursday. Unfortunately, the 2020 tally had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

“A few years ago – in the 1980s – we had a lot of lead poisoning problems, and the population on the Thames and everywhere else in the UK declined dramatically,” he continues.

Queen David Barber's swan marker holds a cygnet as the ancient tradition of counting swans along the Thames begins

Queen’s Swan Marker David Barber holds a cygnet as the ancient tradition of counting swans along the Thames begins

Steve Parsons / PA Images via Getty Queen David Barber’s swan marker

“It was all along using split lead shot in fishing tackle, but we banned it and they now use a different type. People have gradually returned, but Swan Upping’s goal is to give you an indication of the population is also doing well in other regions of the country. “

It’s not for the faint hearted. Barber’s 19-member Swan Uppers team take to the river at 8:30 am in a team of six traditional oars – some over 100 years old – decked out in flags, pennants, swan hooks, boat hooks and oars bearing the Queen’s Insignia ERII to designate that they are working on behalf of Her Majesty.

Once they encounter a family of swans with seals, the lead boat crew yells “All up” and the fleet of small boats gently locks the birds into a position where they can be gently lifted out of the water. .

The Princess Royal consults the annual census of the population of swans on the Thames, called Swan Upping

The Princess Royal consults the annual census of the population of swans on the Thames, called Swan Upping

PA Images / Alamy

Swans and seals then have their legs or wings attached before being moved to the bank to be weighed, measured, and inspected for signs of injury or disease.

“The whole process, as long as there is no serious injury to the swans, takes about 20 minutes,” says Barber. “All young signet rings and adult birds should be released together because the signet rings will get lost otherwise. So you have to be very, very careful. You face the signet ring at the parent bird, and then they will go into the water together.

“Swans are large birds weighing up to 15 kilograms [33 pounds]”, he adds.” They have a wingspan of about 2.5 meters [8.2 feet], so it’s a very big bird to deal with. They’re heavy coming out of the water and, of course, they snap quite a bit too. “

Swan Upping begins on the Thames

Swan Upping begins on the Thames

Dan Kitwood / Getty

But Barber notes: “It’s worth doing it because if we didn’t, the swan population would gradually disappear.”

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It is also educational. The Swan Uppers always make sure to involve as many local school children as possible in the weighing and measuring so that they can learn more about the conservation, the makeup of the Thames and the life cycle of the swans themselves. And the Uppers passed on their knowledge to the royal family as well.

Swan rash

Swan rash

Tom Stoddart / Getty

“The Queen visited Swan upping in 2009,” says Barber. “She came and was very interested in all the processes we were doing. Asked a lot of questions. Met a lot of kids.

He continues: “Three years ago the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) also came. She went in my oar and sat next to me as we went up the river. She was very interested in it. . “