Swan Upping - The Queen's visit
David Barber - The Queen's Swan Marker
One of the delights for the By The Dart team when putting this magazine together is the eclectic mix of people we meet and finding out about their many and varied backgrounds. One such individual, is David Barber, who with his wife Judy, has owned a holiday home in Kingswear for a number of years.
David and Judy are based in the Thames Valley near Marlow where they have successfully built up a marine and manufacturing business. David has lived, worked and played on the river Thames since his teens and for more than 25 years has been involved in the ancient practice of ‘swan-upping’. Indeed, David occupies the grand position of the Queen’s Swan Marker and as such is a member of the Queen’s household reporting to the Lord Chamberlain.
Swan Upping dates from as far back as the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans at a time when swans were considered an important food source for banquets and feasts.
There would be severe penalties if you were caught stealing such swans and for this reason they were specially marked (on their beaks as rings could be cut off) by those for whom right of ownership had been granted by the Sovereign.
Today, the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked Mute swans in open water, but the Queen only exercises her prerogative on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Companies of Vintners’ and Dyers’, who were both granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the 15th century. Nowadays, the swans are counted and marked (this time with rings), but rarely eaten except perhaps occasionally at State Banquets.
The Queen’s Swan Marker and Swan Uppers, accompanied by the Swan Uppers of the Vinters’ and Dyers’ livery companies use six traditional Thames rowing skiffs in their five day journey upstream from Sunbury on the outskirts of London as far as Abingdon in Oxfordshire. This is a stretch of 79 river miles.
By tradition, scarlet uniforms are worn by The Queen’s Swan Marker and Swan Uppers, and each boat flies their appropriate flags and pennants. “I rather like wearing the colourful uniform,” admits David.
The ceremony of Swan Upping takes place during the third week of July each year. When a brood of cygnets is sighted, a cry of “All up!” is given to signal that the boats should get into position.
The swans are surrounded, caught and tied up whilst they are marked and weighed. On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute “Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”.
It’s David’s duty to count the young cygnets each year and to ensure that the swan population is maintained. With the assistance of the Swan Warden, Professor Christopher Perrins of the University of Oxford, the swans are also given a health check.
David produces a report at the completion of Swan Upping each year, which provides data on the number of swans accounted for, including broods and cygnets. The cygnets are weighed and measured to obtain estimates of growth rates, and the birds are examined for any sign of injury (commonly caused by fishing hooks and line). The cygnets are ringed with individual identification numbers by The Queen’s Swan Warden, whose role is scientific and non-ceremonial.
David says, “Apart from Swan Upping, I have other duties: I advise local organisations throughout the country on swan welfare and incidents involving swans. We monitor the health of local swan populations, and I brief fishing and boating organisations on how to work with existing wildlife and maintain existing natural habitats.
We work closely with swan rescue organisations and carry out the rescue of sick and injured swans when relevant. We also coordinate the removal of swans from those stretches of the river used for summer rowing regattas such as Henley. They’re sent to a special reserve near Eton where they are penned for the duration and then returned to exactly the same spot we found them.”
“The position of Swan Marker had traditionally important practical responsibilities to maintain this important food source for nobility,” says David, “ but it’s now a role of conservation and education. I took up this position on the retirement of the previous occupant 16 years ago and I have been very determined to develop this aspect of the role.
The data we collate reflects the enormous changes in the river’s environment over recent years, and a greater awareness of methods of conservation has resulted in a higher level of protection for the swans. Fishing hooks and line are a significant factor in the injuries and deaths of many young cygnets.
Discarded fishing tackle poses a severe threat of drowning and ingested hooks and line cause immense suffering which often results in death. I am proud of the fact that through our efforts we’ve been able to get fisherman to use more swan friendly methods of fishing.”
Actually, the obvious ceremonial fanfare and prestige attached to Swan Upping has given David an important influence in matters of swan conservation and the broader aspects of maintaining these natural habitats. The education, especially of young children, is also important and many schools are invited to each year’s ceremony.
The current population of adult swans along the Thames is roughly 1,200. This number has varied from year to year but is much lower than in the 1950’s. The number of cygnets caught has declined in recent years partly because of the impact of fishing but also because recent flooding has washed nests away. Sadly, vandalism and attacks by dogs have also had an adverse impact.
For David, the highlight of recent years was the visit this year by the Queen to watch the ceremony. This was the first such visit by a reigning monarch for 300 years. “It took alot of planning over 10 months,” comments David, “but I’m pretty sure she enjoyed it.”
David’s role, although part-time, is nonetheless a big commitment. Every day there’s a query from someone or a visit or talk to make. Escaping to the River Dart is therefore very welcome and he and Judy love the area and the friends they have made. They plan to spend more time here in future years.
David is very fortunate to live by two such beautiful rivers and he will no doubt take more than a passing interest in our local swan population. He says he was encouraged when he noticed a sign at Stoke Gabriel encouraging fishermen to take their rods out when swans are passing.
First published September 2009 By the Dart