Mon, 09 Jul 2018
(Interview from 2017)
Out goes the cry ‘All Up!’ and a flotilla of traditional rowing skiffs close in on a family of mute swans. Teams of boatmen dressed in red and blue shirts herd them in.
It’s July and the Swan Uppers are due to arrive up the Thames.
Royal Swan Upping is a centuries-old, once-a-year tradition on the River Thames and for years we have joined the crowds to welcome the arrival of the Swan Uppers at Goring Lock, one of the observation points on their five-day journey up river from Sunbury to Abingdon.
The ceremony goes back to the 12th century, but hasn’t always passed by Goring.
One figure stands out among the rest; resplendent in yellow-braided scarlet jacket with a white quill in his cap is David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker, who explains that the monarch has the right to own any unmarked mute swan in open waters by royal prerogative, but this right is mainly only exercised on certain stretches of the Thames.
“Only three other groups have this right: the Vintners and Dyers livery companies have owned swans on the River Thames since the 15th century, but only on the Thames.
“The third is the Ilchesters of Abbotsbury, on the south coast. The family have owned swans since the 13th century. All three have a royal charter to do that.
“Many years ago the marking of swans at Swan Upping was all about food; swans were highly-valued, a very important food source. Cygnets were served up at banquets and feasts.
“But they were only for the really wealthy.
“Of course, a lot were caught by poachers, but the fines and punishment were severe – certain imprisonment.”
The swan, with arched neck
Between her white wings mantling proudly, rows
Her state with oary feet.
Paradise Lost, Bk VII
Swans are a protected species and no longer eaten, so today it’s all about conservation and education, collecting data, assessing the health of young cygnets and examining them for injuries.
Cygnets are extremely vulnerable at this early stage in their development and Swan Upping affords an opportunity to help both adults and cygnets that might otherwise go untreated.
Twenty-two boatmen are involved in the ceremony, all highly-experienced.
“The Vintners and Dyers Livery companies both come up. I’ve got the Queen’s swan uppers on my team, plus zoologist Prof Christopher Perrins – The Emeritus Fellow of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at the University of Oxford, Emeritus Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford and Her Majesty’s Warden of the Swans since 1993.
“He’s the top ornithologist in the country. He’s not in uniform as his role isn’t ceremonial.
“So there’s 16 swan uppers, three swan markers – for the Vintners, Dyers and the Queen – plus the Swan Warden with his two helpers.”
Contrary to popular opinion, the swans aren’t aggressive.
“We circle the family of swans with six traditional rowing skiffs, working closer and closer together until we can lift the swans and cygnets by hand. We get them ashore and measure, weigh, and check them for injuries.
“We do find many injuries in the young swans due to fishing tackle and we either de-tackle them or, if they are seriously injured, we take them to one of the Thames-side rescue organisations for a vet to look at.
“Adult swans are pretty streetwise, but not the young, who swim straight into the fishing lines.”
Swans caught by the Queen’s swan uppers under the direction of the Swan Marker are left unmarked, except for a ring linked to the British Trust for Ornithology database.
Those caught by the Dyers and Vintners are identified as theirs by means of a further ring on the other leg. Originally, rather than being ringed, the swans would be marked on the bill.
What does it take to be the Queen’s Swan Marker? David Barber is a ‘qualified’ waterman.
“Swan jobs take up much of my time, but my ‘day job’ is running a Thames boatyard at Cookham.
“I’ve worked on the river all my life – since I was 15 years old – as a Thames boatman I know the river backwards. I worked with swans with my predecessor as a Royal Swan Upper for many years, but Professor Perrins taught me all about the scientific side.
“It’s hard work at this time of year, with lots of fishing tackle injuries and dog attacks.
The mute swan population has gone down in recent years and we’re concerned.
“There are problems with wild predators – mainly mink, red kites (people think they feed on carrion, but they will take the young cygnets), other birds of prey and the increase in pike.
“Domestic dogs cause a lot of problems, raiding nests when the mothers are on them. It’s not the fault of the dogs, the walkers need to be more careful. We’ve lost quite a few nests to dogs already this year.”
And what about that splendid uniform? “I’m pleased you describe it that way – many people ask about my ‘costume’ and that
“The jacket is the scarlet red of the Queen’s colours, with the badges of HM Swan Marker on the side and ER II on the buttons – the uniform is historical, going back many, many years.
“I’m also asked about my white trousers – extremely practical for catching wildlife,” says David with tongue firmly in cheek. “They are clean on every day; I get through six pairs in a week.”
Schools are invited to meet the Swan Uppers on their journey up river.
Working with the River & Rowing Museum at Henley on Thames on projects for primary school children has resulted in a learning resource covering a wide spectrum of the national curriculum, enabling schools to focus on a number of distinct subject areas revolving around the river’s ecology and geography and the habitat it provides for so much of our wildlife.
“Many schools come along – this year nine. We teach them a little about what we are doing, the history, swan ecology, about boats, the river and locks. And they are very, very interested.
“It’s good for them to see the river and for us to show them the very young cygnets.”
The Queen herself also went along a few years ago to see the work of her Royal Swan Marker, who says he’s sure she takes great interest in what they do.
“She seemed to enjoy her day, asked a lot of questions, spoke to people, met the children and presented certificates.”
As for the future of the protected mute swan species, David is not entirely optimistic. “I wouldn’t say swans are under threat, but Professor Perrins and I are concerned.
“Let’s see what this year brings.”
The observation points and times for 2018 are (all times given are approximate):
Monday 16th July 2018
Sunbury 09.00 Departure point
Shepperton Lock 10.15
Penton Hook Lock 12.30
Romney Lock 17.30
Tuesday 17th July 2018
Eton Bridge 08.30 Departure point
Boveney Lock 09.30
Boulters Lock 12.00
Cookham Bridge 13.00
Marlow Lock 17.00
Wednesday 18th July 2018
Marlow Bridge 09.00 Departure point
Hurley Lock 10.30
Hambleden Lock 12.00
Henley Town 13.30
Marsh Lock 15.30
Shiplake Lock 17.00
Sonning Bridge 18.00
Thursday 19th July 2018
Sonning-on-Thames 09.00 Departure point
Caversham Lock 10.15
Mapledurham Lock 12.15
Goring Lock 17.00
Friday 20th July 2018
Moulsford 09.00 Departure point
Benson Lock 10.15
Clifton Hampden Bridge13.00
Abingdon Bridge 17.00