If you happen to be at Goring Lock around 5pm on Thursday 19 July, you’ll be greeted with a unique and quintessentially English sight – the Royal Swan Uppers at work.
Swan upping dates back centuries to a time when swans were eaten at banquets and featss. It was a way of ensuring that there were plenty of cygnets on the river to continue breeding then taking the remainder away to fatten up for eating. But controlling the swan population in this way was very labour intensive and with the increasing availability of domestic poultry in the 19th century, swans became far less desirable on the dining table.
Today, swan upping plays in important role in the conservation of mute swans. During the third week of July each year, a team of swan uppers travels from Sunbury to Abingdon in six traditional rowing skiffs. The skiffs are decorated with the flags and pennants of not just the Crown but also the Vintners and the Dyers – the three bodies which collectively own the swans on the River Thames.
The swan uppers travel along the river and when they spot a colony of swans, they call out, ‘All-up!’. The boats then surround the swans and their cygnets and carefully lift the birds out of the water. They are then taken onshore for examining and marking.
The cygnets are weighed and measured, and checked for injuries. Most injuries can be dealt with in situ but some swans may require treatment at a rescue centre. Injuries are often caused by discarded fishing tackle as well as by attacks by predators, dogs and, sadly, humans. All the data is recorded by the Queen’s Swan Warden.
Cygnet numbers recorded in 2017 were significantly higher than the previous two years with 132 new cygnets recorded on the River Thames despite an outbreak of Avian Flu at the start of the year
Last year saw a significant improvement in cygnet numbers compared to the last two years, with a total of 132 new cygnets on the River Thames. This uplift was welcomed after an outbreak of Avian Influenza at the start of the year.
‘Throughout the year we have been delighted that members of the public have kept a watchful eye on so many of the nesting swans,’ David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker (pictured above), explains, ‘It is encouraging to see how important the welfare of swans and their young cygnets are to so many people.’
There was a massive decline in the swan population in the latter half of the 20th century. But when lead fishing weights were banned in the late 1980s, swan numbers started to increase steadily. There are, however, far fewer breeding pairs today than in the post-war years.
Swans today face many challenges. Injuries and vandalism aside, there is a lack of aquatic vegetation, and the increase in concrete embankments and moored boats make it difficult for swans to access grass riverbanks for feeding.
As well as monitoring the swan population, the Swan Uppers invite schools along to see them at work and to educate children in the importance of river ecology and the conservation of these unique and beautiful creatures.
The Royal Swan Uppers are scheduled to arrive at Goring Lock at 5pm on Thursday 19 July. They set off that morning from Sonning before stopping in Caversham and Mapledurham. After Goring, they will travel on to Moulsford with an expected arrival time of 6pm