The first written record of the monarch claiming ownership of mute swans dates back to 1186, when they could claim unmarked swans swimming in open water. Young swans – cygnets – were highly prized as a food source and flocks were owned by various livery companies and noble families, each of whom had their unique mark cut into the birds’ beaks.
The desire to own swans declined as domestic poultry became more freely available and, today, only the Ilchester family at Abbotsbury in Devon and the Worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers are swan owners. Apart, of course, from the Queen.
July has always been the favoured time for swan-upping as the cygnets are too young to fly and the adults are in moult, making a very labour intensive process slightly easier. The swan families would be caught and the cygnets either removed for eating or marked to match their parents.
Modern day swan-upping is an opportunity to check the health of swan families on the Thames between Sunbury and Abingdon. Royal swan-uppers and those from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies set out in six rowing boats and round up the families to weigh and measure them, ring them (rather than mark the beaks) and carry out any bank-side first aid that may be required. It is also a chance to educate school children about the swans and the Thames.
Life on the Thames is not easy for the modern swan. Man-made embankments, the increasing number of boats, injuries and poisonings from fishing tackle, and shootings are just a few of the hazards they face.
So there you have it – swan-upping – a curious part of British heritage that has survived down the centuries.
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