I’m always a little nervous around swans. This stems from when I was 11 years old and out on a bike ride with my best mate. On passing a local pond a large swan took a dislike to me and started pecking at my bicycle tyres, I pedalled as fast as I could, but those birds can shift when they want to! My bike and I escaped unscathed but ever since then I have been wary of swans. Despite this I do appreciate their beauty; this week the annual ‘Swan Upping’ takes place, which plays an important role in ensuring the welfare of these birds.
Swan Upping is a census of mute swans on the River Thames and is a practice which dates back to the 12th century. Historically, the Crown retains the right to ownership of unmarked swans in open water. Currently, the Crown shares ownership with the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers.
The Swan Uppers progress upriver in rowing skiffs, and the shout ‘all up!’ indicates when the boats should get into position to surround the birds. Once the swans are rounded up they are weighed and measured and their health is checked before they are released back into the water. Nowadays swans are tagged by placing rings on their legs but in the 16th century ownership was indicated by marking swans’ beaks with various combinations of nicks and lines made using a sharp knife.
We have here in the Royal Society archives a register of 16th century swan marks kept by Queen Elizabeth I’s swan-herd. This particular page shows eighteen swan marks (drawn in ink and watercolour on vellum) issued by the Crown to landowners in the county of Lincolnshire, England, including to John Whitgift (c.1530-1577), Dean of Lincoln and later Archbishop of Canterbury. In the margin alongside the marks are the names of those with grants of swans. We believe the manuscript was donated to the Royal Society by the book collector John Towneley FRS (1731-1813) as his name is inscribed inside the front cover.
To find out more about the history and practice of Swan Upping I recommend looking at the official online guide; or even better, you can go and see the census in action at a number of designated observation points throughout the week. I may well go along myself and face my fears!