Swan Upping: What Is It, And Where To See It

M@
By M@ Last edited 11 months ago

Last Updated 14 July 2023

Swan Upping: What Is It, And Where To See It
Swans on the thames

In July each year, you'll probably see an "and finally" section on the news about swan upping. Here's everything you need to know about this curious old tradition.

So what exactly is swan upping?

An annual ritual whereby all the mute swans on (part of) the River Thames are rounded up, ringed and released.

Ringed?

Yes. That's when a ring is placed around the bird's leg. This shows who owns it.

Shows who owns it? What? This is mad? Nobody owns swans

Lots of posh people would beg to differ. Chief among them is His Majesty King Charles III. By custom, the Crown owns all unmarked (or unringed) swans on the open water.

Swans with cygnets on the thames

So if Charlie boy owns all the unmarked swans, who claims the ones that have been ringed?

Now we come to the crux of the matter. The Thames swans have two other claimants: the Vintners' Company and the Dyers' Company — two of the many livery companies of the City of London. During swan upping, all three parties (the Crown, Vintners and Dyers) row along the Thames in skiffs (simple row boats), on the look-out for mute swans. Any they find are captured, ringed and released. The birds are divided equally among the three groups.

I was right, this is mad

Correct. But that's British traditions for you. The archaic practice does serve a useful modern conservation purpose, though. The count acts as an annual census of swans, so any decline in numbers will be quickly spotted (as happened with avian flu). The boat crews also weigh and measure the birds, and check their general health. While they're at it, the swan uppers also use the opportunity to meet local school groups, with riverside conservation workshops and other educational activities.

A swan marker in traditional uniform with a swan in sculptural form beside Thames Street
A statue of a swan marker in the City of London

Hang on... so the livery company birds get rings, but the Crown ones don't? So how do they know whether an unmarked bird is one they haven't yet captured, or one of the released Crown birds?

Good question. Presumably, the birds don't move around the river too much, especially if they have young. So it's unlikely that a newly encountered swan has already been bagged in another part of the river.

How long has this been going on?

The tradition dates back to time immemorial, although the current format with vintners, dyers and royal reps seems to date from the 15th century. Swans were once an important component of banquets, and so the birds were jealously hoarded. The monarch has long exercised dominion over all unmarked swans in open waters, granting ownership rights to certain groups and private estates. Only the Dyers and Vinters still maintain that relationship.

Swans are now a protected species. To kill and eat one would make you a criminal, and a twisted, feather-mouthed criminal at that.

a party of swan uppers in red shirts rowing on the thames
Swan upping at Sunbury lock. Image Colin Smith, creative commons licence

When and where does it take place?

Swan upping takes place on the Thames in the third week of July each year. It normally takes about five days to assay the river.

But the Thames is huge and these boats look timid. How can they do the whole river in just five days?

They don't. The customary stretch is from Sunbury to Abingdon. No upping of swans occurs on the tidal Thames.

Sculpture of a swan made of stone
A swan sculpture within Vintners' Hall

So who owns the swans on the bits of the Thames that are not surveyed?

That'll be the Crown. And not just the Thames. Any mute swan in the wild is deemed royal property by ancient prerogative.

Are the birds harmed?

The animals are not physically harmed by the swan markers and, as mentioned, they even get a health check. It's fair to assume that the birds are not best pleased to be lifted up into boats, however.

Still, it's better than what happened in the olden days. Traditional swan upping involved the carving of notches into the swan's beak to denote ownership. The practice is reflected in the pub name The Swan With Two Necks (nicks), of which there are several across the country.

Have any human arms been broken? Because I heard swans are good at that

There are no recorded cases of a swan breaking a man's arm on the Thames (though the power of the swan is not a myth — historical accounts of arm breaking can be found, just not during the 'upping').

Actually, it's the other way round. Until the 20th century, swan uppers would frequently pinion the wings of the captured birds. This involved the removal of part of the wingtip, analogous to clipping off the end of a finger. The brutal practice prevented the birds from flying any great distance, keeping them local.

Mosaic of a swan
Swans get everywhere in London, even Stockwell tube station. This mosaic references the Swan pub upstairs

Can I watch?

You can indeed. Look out for the traditional boats crewed by scarlet-shirted swan uppers. The 2023 dates are 17-21 July, and you can find the intended itinerary on the website of The Swan Marker to His Majesty the King.