Annual “Swan Upping” on the Thames River

Tradition is important in England, and if it involves the Queen or King, then it is really important!  One aspect of royal tradition is now also important as a conservation and education tool—the annual “Swan Upping” on the Thames River.

The subject of all this attention is the mute swan (Cygnus olor) (photo by Nick Goodrum)

Since the 12th Century, representatives of the British monarchy (today that’s Queen Elizabeth II) have conducted an annual census of the population of mute swans (Cygnus Olor).  The swans were valuable back then as a food resource, and, just like cattle in the American West, swans were “branded” so the owners knew which belonged to whom.   In mid-summer, the Royal Swan Marker and his crew rounded up families of swans by surrounding them with long, narrow row-boats (when they spotted a swan family, they cried “all up” and surrounded the bevy; hence the name swan “upping”).  They checked the birds for disease and injury, and they marked the young, called cygnets, with the same ownership brand as the adults.  In earlier centuries, the mark was a distinctive series of nicks cut into the birds’ bills; today it is a leg-band, just like those used throughout the world for scientific purposes.

An 1875 engraving by William J. Palmer shows swan upping in progress on the Upper Thames

The subject of all this effort, the mute swan, is a staple in European culture and history (for a long time, it was literally a staple on the dinner plates of hungry English families).  The birds feature in ancient cave art, and their mostly monogamous, life-long pairing has made them a symbol of love and faithfulness.  Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling is about a mute swan.  

The species was introduced into North America throughout the late 1800s and 1900s as an ornamental bird for the ponds of wealthy landowners and parks.  It is now commonplace across the continent.  Despite its majestic beauty, the mute swan can be a nuisance, displacing native birds by its aggressive behavior and degrading native ecosystems by its voracious appetite.

Today, England’s annual Swan Upping occurs during the third week of July (in 2021, it started on July 20).  Although swan upping was once a widespread and economically important activity, today it occurs as a ceremonial event over several days on a 79-mile stretch of the Thames River north of London.

The process continues to this day (photo by Bill Tyne)

But it is perhaps more important today than ever.  Today Swan Upping is all about conservation and environmental education. The annual event continues to monitor the health of the mute swan population, providing an index of general environmental quality.  Associated events involve children in observing the birds and learning about their biology and the overall ecology of the Thames River, especially pollution and damage to birds from fishing lines and other litter.

But all in all, I think it’s great that we get “up” for conserving our natural resources.  Anyone ready for tea and crumpets?

References:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Mute Swan.  Available at:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mute_Swan/overview.  Accessed July 21, 2021.

House of Windsor.  Swan Upping.  Available at:  http://www.thamesweb.co.uk/windsor/windsor1999/upping.html. Accessed July 21, 2021.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.  Mute Swan.  Available at:  https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/mute-swan/. Accessed July 21, 2021.

The Royal Family.  Swan Upping.  Available at:  https://www.royal.uk/swans. Accessed July 21, 2021.

The Queen’s Swan Marker.  Swan Upping.  Available at:  http://www.royalswan.co.uk. Accessed July 21, 2021.

This Month in Conservation

June 1
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June 2
Edwin Way Teale, Nature Writer, Born (1899)
June 2
Rodne Galicha, Philippine Environmentalist, Born (1979)
June 3
The World’s First Wilderness Area Established (1924)
June 4
Gaylord Nelson, Politician and Conservationist, Born (1916)
June 5
World Environment Day
June 6
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June 7
Thomas Malthus Published His Famous Essay (1798)
June 8
Bryce Canyon National Park Created (1923)
June 9
Coral Triangle Day
June 10
E. O. Wilson, Father of Biodiversity, Born (1929)
June 11
Jacques Cousteau, Ocean Explorer, Born (1910)
June 12
Frank Chapman, Creator of the Christmas Bird Count, Born (1864)
June 13
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, Born (1944)
June 14
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June 15
Global Wind Day
June 16
Gray Whale Delisted (1994)
June 17
World Day to Combat Desertification
June 18
Alexander Wetmore, Ornithologist and Smithsonian Leader, Born (1866)
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June 21
World Hydrography Day
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June 23
Antarctic Treaty Implemented (1961)
June 24
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June 25
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June 26
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June 27
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June 28
Mark Shand, Asian Elephant Conservationist, Born (1951)
June 29
Mesa Verde National Park Created (1906)
June 30
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Created (1940)
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