Pageantry of Swan Upping

Swan Upping on the Thames.
Swan Upping on the Thames.

On a river, lake, or canal near you, fluffy cygnets are paddling after their mother. Meanwhile on the Thames, men in blazers are wrestling swans.

This week, Swan Upping is underway. This census of mute swans began in the twelfth century when the birds were a high status food. No banquet was complete without a dish of roast swan, decorated with its own feathers.

Ancient societies linked swans with the sun

Many medieval landowners kept their own swans, identified by a pattern of nicks on the beak. To ensure a steady supply for the royal household the Crown claimed all swans born on the Thames and its tributaries, and the sovereign’s Swan Marker made a record every year.

900 years later, Swan Upping has a different purpose. No beaks are nicked today — young birds are ringed, weighed and given a health check. Minor injuries are treated, while serious cases are taken to a swan sanctuary.

The pageantry remains, though. The Queen’s Swan Marker, David Barber, and the other Swan Uppers work from traditional skiffs flying heraldic banners and pennants. When swans are spotted someone shouts “all up”, the signal for boats to surround adults and young. Then the birds are lifted from the water and taken to the bank for examination.

For the other 51 weeks of the year the Swan Marker deals with welfare. Swans have to be moved during sporting events, and there are growing pressures from leisure activities. Vandals, mink, and loose dogs are always causing problems. To raise awareness David Barber works with local schools, involving pupils with riverbank conservation and inviting them to watch Swan Upping.

A family of mute swans stays together until winter, when the youngsters have to leave the cob’s territory. The juveniles join a colony of other singletons, where they choose a mate. The new pair, who’ll stay together for life, then set off to find their own stretch of water.

As swans glide across a lake, or ride the waves where a river meets the sea, it’s hard not to fall under their spell. Swans have a magical presence.

Ancient societies linked swans with the sun — in Irish myth they drew the sun chariot across the underworld sea each night. Many tales of people who were changed into swans are found in northern Europe.

There’s an old belief that mute swans discovered their voice just before their death. Socrates, Plato and Chaucer all mentioned it. It’s given us the term “swan song”, the last work of a poet, composer, or artist.

Dog or duck

We’re well into the dog days now, reputedly the hottest of the year. For once, they’re not a disappointment.

The dog days are named after Sirius, the brilliant star that follows at the heels of Orion the hunter. Although the dog-star is the brightest star in our winter sky, in summer it rises and sets with the sun. The Romans coined the term — they thought the combined heat from Sirius and the sun drove people and dogs to madness.

So, will the school holidays be dog days or duck days? Old Swithin smiled on us last week; let’s hope he delivers on his promise of forty fine days.