The unsuspecting family was enjoying a peaceful outing on the river when the rowers set upon them.
“All up!” one of the men cried, prompting some furious oaring by his fellows to maneuver their boats into position. Implacably, they closed in around the bewildered family until there was no chance of escape.
One rower splashed into the water and grabbed the dad. Others nabbed mom and the five kids. The captives, their legs tied behind them, were deposited on the shore, squawking in distress and occasionally flapping their wings as they awaited inspection by Her Majesty’s Swan Marker, who strolled up in his splendid scarlet uniform.
One by one, each of the five downy young cygnets was weighed, measured and given a clean bill of health. Then they and their anxious parents were released back onto the river to resume their rudely interrupted morning out.
In a land full of peculiar and antiquated traditions, this is surely one of the oddest and oldest, and the one that has, without doubt, ruffled the most feathers: the annual swan census, or the “royal swan upping,” along a picturesque stretch of the Thames outside London.
It’s “royal” because, since at least the late 12th century, all unmarked mute swans (a common white species) found in open water are considered the property of the British crown. And it’s called “upping” because “we’re going upstream, and we’re always lifting the swans upward” out of the river, said Paul Willmott, who has participated for several years.
The event takes place every third week of July, a time when parent birds are molting and their new offspring are too small to fly, making entire families easier to catch. Nowadays, swan upping is confined to a 79-mile section of the Thames that winds past sleepy meadows, dappled hills, stony churches, stately manors, indifferent sheep and a medieval convent up for sale.
In olden days, the swans were prized not as elegant creatures fit for admiration but as delicacies fit for the king’s table. So sought after were they that, for centuries, swan poaching was a treasonable offense.
But at some point, swan was dropped from the menu, possibly in favor of turkey. And in better keeping with modern Britain and its passion for the furred and feathered, concern for the birds’ welfare eventually replaced gluttony as the purpose behind the yearly tally. Royal consumption gave way to royal conservation.
Either way, it’s an excuse for a jolly good show, the kind at which the British excel, meaning special outfits, slightly ridiculous titles, solemn rituals and glasses of port wine.
Enter David Barber, Queen Elizabeth II’s swan marker, decked out in his red nautical uniform with – what else – a feather in his cap.
A veteran waterman, Barber landed his post 22 years ago after an interview at Buckingham Palace. (He describes his 89-year-old boss as “a very, very nice lady – extremely understanding, very strict.”) Barber’s duties aren’t limited merely to the five-day census, which began Monday: When swans are found serenely holding up traffic on freeways or trying to muscle aside larger winged objects on airport tarmacs, it’s his phone that rings.
“I’m dealing with swan issues every day of my life,” he said, though whether with exasperation or pride, or a mixture of the two, was hard to tell.
For the annual count, Barber and “uppers,” or rowers, representing the queen are joined by uppers from two ancient guilds to which the monarchy awarded some swan-owning rights at the end of the 15th century: the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the equally Worshipful Company of Vintners. Colorful banners, snapping taut in the breeze, identify which wooden rowing skiffs – nothing motorized here – belong to which team.
The crewmen kick off each morning with a glass of port and a toast. Usually at the end of the first day, as their vessels come within sight of Windsor Castle, the uppers all stand and raise their oars to salute the queen.
When someone spots a group of swans and shouts, “All up,” everybody springs into action, including Chris Perrins, a retired Oxford don and, since it’s not enough just to have your own swan marker, Her Majesty’s Swan Warden.
An ornithologist, Perrins weighs the birds, measures their bills and checks for signs of illness or injury. His involvement with the census dates back to 1978, when the Thames’ swan population had taken an alarming dive.
“It went down very badly in the ’70s because of lead poisoning from the fishing weights. The Thames was very heavily fished,” Perrins said.
Banning lead weights has helped swan numbers bounce back. There are currently 1,100 in the swan upping area, from the town of Sunbury in Surrey to Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Their biggest threats now are minks, pikes and gun-toting humans who see swans as “big white targets,” as Barber put it.
The flurry of activity on the river invariably attracts an appreciative crowd, spectators who gather around the uppers and the birds, snapping photos and sometimes stretching out a hand to touch the soft gray coat of a cygnet lying immobilized on the ground.
But Bob Prentice, who has taken part in the swan census for about 20 years, said that being an upper can sometimes be a downer.
“We’ve gone through years where people tell us it’s barbaric,” said Prentice, 62. “But when I see a swan that’s starving because it’s got a fishing line around its mouth, and you pull it out and it swims away and eats, that’s not barbaric.”
As Prentice spoke, the family of seven seized by his companions – the cob (male), pen (female) and five cygnets – were being reunited and lowered into the river.
They stretched their necks, shook out their wings and waggled their tails in the water. Then they glided away, safe from nosy census-takers for a year.
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