The Royal Traditions of Swan Upping

The Royal Traditions of Swan Upping

We are delighted to be sharing a very special event with you – Swan Upping, the annual census of the swan population.

The origin of Swan Upping was a primarily ceremonial event from the 12th century, but its purpose has now changed from ceremonial to an important element of wildlife conservation.

A ceremonial element is beautifully retained - a flotilla of traditional Thames rowing skiffs, manned by Swan Uppers in scarlet rowing shirts and headed by The Queen’s Swan Marker, wearing a hat with a white swan’s feather, row their way steadily up the Thames. ‘All up!’ they cry as a family of swans and cygnets is spotted, and the Swan Uppers carefully position their boats around the swans, lift them from the water and check their health.

The Swan Marker’s iconic five-day journey upriver has been an annual ceremony for hundreds of years, and today it has two clear goals; conservation and education.

Swan Upping takes place in July each year and the designated stretch of the river Thames is analysed over a 5-day period during which the swans are counted and checked for good health.

David Barber, the Swan Marker, has reported that there is an encouragingly high level of nesting this year, and they are very grateful to the many members of the public who keep a watchful eye on the nesting sights and request help when needed. I walk by the river most days here in Henley on Thames, and we all love watching the graceful elegance of these magnificent creatures as they glide down the river, and there is genuine excitement when the cygnets hatch and the small grey fluffy babies join their parents on the river.

There will be many schools visiting Swan Upping once again this year as they continue to encourage the education of children about swan welfare, the river, the traditional boats they use and the impact of human activity on our wildlife.

Swan Upping plays an important role in the conservation of the mute swan and involves The Queen’s Swan Warden collecting data, assessing the health of young cygnets and examining them for any injuries. Cygnets are extremely vulnerable at this early stage in their development and Swan Upping affords an opportunity to help both adults and cygnets that might otherwise go untreated.

The Crown has held the right to claim ownership of all unmarked mute swans swimming in open waters throughout the country from as far back as the twelfth century. Historically, valuable rights of ownership were subsequently granted by the monarch to many people and organisations as swans were a prized food, served at banquets and feasts.

Today, of course, we no longer eat swans, they are a protected species and a much-loved feature of our rivers.


If you would like to know more about what you can get up to on our British waterways, watch our Humphreys of Henley TV episode, where we talk about open water swimming, rowing, river cruises and more.