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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
The swans' census-taker
Catch and count, photo by Robert Dean
Swan Upping: Annual count of the Queen's swans
It's census time for us humans. But every year a similar operation happens for swans on the Thames in a centuries-old tradition known as Swan Upping. David Barber, the Queen's swan marker, explains.

The post dates from the 12th Century, when the birds were an important food source and the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans in the United Kingdom.

David Barber untangles a swan caught in fishing line, photo by Robert Dean
David Barber untangles a swan caught in fishing line
Swans were seen as a luxury food to be kept for the gentry, and the monarch allowed dignitaries, livery companies, and landowners to breed swans in return for loans or services.

Ownership was denoted by a series of nicks and scratches on their beaks made during Swan Upping - those with no marks belong to the Crown.

The only [other] people still allowed to own swans are the Ilchester family, of Abbotsbury, Dorset, and two City of London livery companies, the Vintners and Dyers.

Colourful spectacle

Swan Upping takes place over five days in July, when we count the swans on the river between Sunbury and Abingdon-on-Thames.

Swan in Cookham
Once swans graced the Christmas banquet table
We use six traditional rowing skiffs with 19 men in total. But we don't row all the way - other boats tow us part of the way up the river.

It's a very colourful spectacle. The men with the Crown wear scarlet jackets and scarlet shirts, with the Crown encipher on the sleeves. The Vintners wear black blazers or white shirts, and the Dyers wear navy-blue blazers and navy-blue shirts.

When we come across a brood of young cygnets - a family of swans - our men shout out, "All up". We circle the skiffs around the swans, then work the boats in closer and closer to the riverbank to close the circle around the birds.

Click here to see the boats close in

The Queen's swan warden, Professor Christopher Perrins of Oxford University, weighs the birds and checks them for fishhooks.

We then tag them with small, stainless steel leg rings - marking the beaks went out about three years ago. The rings aren't so traditional, but do provide more information.

Conservation role

For centuries, the swan marker was a sort of gamekeeper; when I took on the role seven years ago, I saw the job as having more to offer conservation and children's education.

David Barber
David Barber: "I've always worked on the river"
I'd been a swan upper for many years, and my name was put forward when my predecessor, Captain John Turk, retired at 82.

Although I'd never intended to have the job, I realised that this was an opportunity to help the river and to help people better understand what we do. That's how I got the job, I think - because I wanted to change it.

I'll hold the post, health permitting, until I'm 70. It's called part-time, but I deal with swan problems day in and day out, and answer questions from all over the world.

Respect the river

We have an asset here in the Thames, yet the river is a little in decline at the moment. People put all this concrete and steel sheeting along the banks, so the reed beds disappear.

Swans near Cookham
A breeding pair nest near Cookham
If this continues, what's going to be left in 50 or 100 years time? We risk losing the habitats of not only swans, but all the wildlife in the area.

I want to encourage young children to respect the river, respect wildlife.

We take a few school groups out on a passenger boat during Swan Upping, and they get to see exactly what's going on. Then later, if they take up fishing, they understand that discarded fishing tackle can be dangerous to wildlife.

In the 1980s, swan numbers on the Thames had dwindled by two-thirds due to lead poisoning from fishing weights. Once these were banned, numbers built up from 400 to between 1,000 and 1,200.

Swan upping is a tradition, a royal event, which is absolutely good for the country.

It also serves an important conservation purpose. If we didn't intervene, the swan population would be nowhere near as good as it is today.

Click here to return

David Barber
"If you're very lucky, there might be 10 cygnets"

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