An Insight to Swan Upping

In the lead up to this year's occasion, Stephen North decided to briefly research the history of Swan upping and its place in Christchurch Harbour.

Swan upping dates, according to Stefan Buczacki's "Fauna Britannica", from around the Twelfth Century when swans were marked not for conservation but for quite the opposite, as a stock take of the Crown's preferred banquet delicacy. The Act of the Swan in 1482 extended consumption and ownership rights to landowners who were permitted to mark the birds to indicate ownership. Elizabeth I granted one exception, the swans at Abbotsbury; probably the largest muster of swans in the country.

The Act required the birds to be rounded up and marked, and sometimes pinioned, marking was by notches cut in their upper mandibles and numbers were recorded on Swan Rolls with disputes settled by Swan Motes. As Buczacki points out this was really a means of stopping the poor eating the birds - or more precisely exacting retribution on those that did!

The word "upping" is from the Sixteenth century and refers to the practice of upturning the birds into boats for the purposes of marking them. The national flock is known as the Queen's Game of Swans and the Queen "owns" all unmarked swans on open water. Landowner rights have dwindled so nowadays the only flocks upped under the terms of the Act asfar as I can discover, are those on certain stretches of the Thames which are owned by the two livery companies the Vintners and Dyers. The traditional (including fancy dress) Swan Upping on the Thames is done under the auspices of officials with titles such as the Queen's Swan Warden and the Queen's Swan Marker. The Crown's right of ownership continues despite the abolition of the Crown's rights to other animals in the early 1970s.

Needless to say there are many who regard the whole practice as archaic and cruel: birds can't fly away as they are mid-moult. At least the practice of marking the bill and clipping the wing feathers has been discontinued - though shockingly the former was only stopped as recently as 1998. For the views of the Queen's current Swan marker, David Barber and the current Swan Warden, Christopher Perrins click here

Nowadays the "upped" Thames swans are weighed and checked for fishing line and when swan numbers declined through lead poisoning the annual census was perhaps an early warning. You may recall some instances of swan consumption by asylum seekers in the Sun last year - these were not true. But even if there were people with big enough ovens and BBQs to roast swans as in days of yore, it's hard to see how an annual census could do much about the problem. And whilst I'm dispelling myths, the legend that Swans were introduced from Turkey by Richard the Lionheart is nonsense - evidenced by the discovery of Roman period swan bones at Glastonbury.

Why swan upping happens in Christchurch at all is something I haven't been able to discover - perhaps someone can tell us.

It does seem to be an unnecessary strain on the birds at a time when breeding numbers are variable (they seem to be down in the harbour this year). On the other hand, Swan Upping seems to do less immediate damage to the birds than, for example, last year's flagrant cygnicide by a 16 year old with the controls of a power boat on the Stour.

Stephen North

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