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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

Swan Upping, Berkshire

The swan is not native to Britain, but was introduced around the 13th century as a bird for the table - the turkey of its day, though reports from those who have eaten the bird use words like fishy and tough that make the prospect unappetising even for confirmed carnivores.
Given the value of the swan for the table it was deemed to be a royal prerogative to own them, and at one time stealing a swan would have been a capital offence - but then at one time in this country stealing a button could have resulted in hanging.
As a valuable resource the number of swans was monitored annually, and a royal official was appointed to do this.
In the middle of the 15th century two livery companies, the Vintners' and the Dyers', were given permission to own swans, and so a method of distinguishing the property of each party was devised - marking the birds and their offspring. At one time this was done with marks on the feet, and then with patterns or cuts in the beaks of the birds.
The right could be given by the crown to individuals and organisations to own and kill swans for a limited period on a particular stretch of river or area of land, and each of these rights-holders needed a mark too, with the result that for example Eton College had a specific pattern at one time for its swans.
Every year in the third week of July Swan Upping takes place on the Thames , the Queen's Swan Warden, traditionally Professor of Ornithology at Oxford , accompanies the Queen's Swan Marker and the Swan Uppers of the Vintners' and Dyers' companies travelling by traditional skiff from Sunbury up the Thames as far as Abingdon , catching and examining swans and their cygnets.
The cygnets of swans belonging to the Dyers were marked with a nick in one side of the beak, those of the Vintners with a nick on both sides (hence the pub name The Swan with Two Necks, originally of course 'nicks' rather than 'necks'). The royal swans were left unmarked. In modern times ringing is used, a more humane method and with the advantage that the ring is able to carry information of scientific value. At Romney Lock, being the nearest to Windsor Castle , a toast is drunk to the monarch.
While tales of swans breaking arms with a swish of the wing are apocryphal, the creatures take some catching, the normal method involving the skiffs surrounding them. This being Britain those doing the catching and rowing wear special clothing such as scarlet jackets or jumpers, hooped jumpers, naval hats with a swan's feather in... for the event, which last five days.

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