Nature’s own medicine chest

A mute swan guards her cygnets
A mute swan guards her cygnets

Written by Heather Elividge

Saint Swithin gave us a big smile on Monday, assuring us of a fine summer. And everywhere, elder trees are weighed down with gorgeous rosettes – it’s hard to remember a year when they’ve looked better.

For centuries this common tree was nature’s medicine chest. Elderflower tea and elderberry wine were traditional remedies for coughs and fevers. An ointment made from the leaves soothed dry skin. Elder buds were a laxative, the bark a painkiller. Elder juice was rubbed on to repel mosquitoes.

Though the uses were endless, attitudes were contradictory. Some people thought that elder was a witch tree. It was so evil they wouldn’t even cut it down or burn its wood. Others believed that elder was a sacred tree – they carried its twigs or leaves to keep evil away.

Today herbalists use elder to treat allergies, and elderflower cordial is sold in some supermarkets. But you can still find people who won’t cut down elder, without first asking the Owd Gal’s permission.

All up

On a lake, river or canal near you, a straggly line of fluffy young swans will be paddling after their mother. Meanwhile on the Thames, men in red blazers are counting cygnets.

The ancient ceremony of Swan Upping is underway this week. It began in the 12th century when the Crown laid claim to all unmarked swans.

In those days swans were a valuable food source. No banquet was complete without an elaborate dish of roast swan, decorated with its own feathers. To ensure a steady supply, the sovereign’s Swan Marker kept a record of all cygnets born on the Thames. Each one was “branded” with a pattern of nicks to the beak.

Nine hundred years later, this annual counting of swans has become a conservation exercise. No beaks are nicked today – young birds are ringed, weighed and given a health check. Minor injuries are treated on the spot, while serious cases are taken to a swan sanctuary. Otherwise, not much has changed.

The Queen’s Swan Marker, his assistant the Swan Warden and the other swan uppers work from traditional skiffs flying heraldic banners and pennants. When swans are spotted someone shouts “all up” and the watermen manoeuvre the boats to corral adults and young. Then the birds are lifted from the water and taken to the bank for examination.

All this is necessary because the Thames swans face many hazards. Only last month, 110 swans had to be rescued and cleaned after oil, probably fly-tipped into a drain, found its way into the Thames at Windsor. Vandals, mink and abandoned fishing tackle are perennial problems.

Vandals and dogs permitting, mute swans pair for life. The family stays together until winter when the young birds have to leave the cob’s territory. These juveniles will join a colony of other singletons, where they will choose a mate. The new pair then set off to find their own stretch of water.

It’s often said that swans are royal birds, the property of the Queen. Although that sounds like an urban myth, it is true that all mute swans “flying at liberty” still belong to the Crown.