David Barber has one of the more unusual jobs in the Royal Household – overseeing the Queen’s swans. And this is his busiest time of year, as he prepares for Swan Upping, the annual census of the swan population along the River Thames.
Starting today, the Royal Swan Marker leads a five-day event where he rows with a crew along a 79-mile stretch of the river collecting data, assessing the health of young, vulnerable cygnets and checking them for injuries.
Every time the crew – who wear blue or red blazers with royal insignia for the event – spot a family of swans and cygnets they shout, “All up!” and row over to the birds. The crew – or Uppers, as they are known – jump out and lift the adult and baby swans from the water. The swans have their legs and wings tied with soft string so they can be inspected.
“This is my 30th Swan Upping,” says Barber, who wears a hat with a swan’s white feather during the census.
The census, which begins in Sunbury, Surrey, and ends in Abingdon Bridge, Oxfordshire, is a royal event because the Queen has right of ownership of all unmarked swans swimming in open waters – although this is mainly exercised on certain stretches of the Thames.
The Queen – who, along with titles such as Defender of the Faith, and Head of the Commonwealth, is also the Seigneur of the Swans – shares ownership of swans with the old trade associations of the Vintners and Dyers, whose representatives join the upping.
These days, Swan Upping is about conservation – a way of tracking the health of the swans – but the tradition, which dates to the 12th century, used to be about controlling the swan population in order to ensure there were some top-class feasts to be enjoyed.
“Swans have been classed as a royal bird for almost 1,000 years and in those days were classed as a delicacy served at banquets,” says Barber. “Now, of course, they are a protected species and it is illegal to eat them, but they are still royal.”
Barber hopes the next generation will appreciate the swans and regularly gives talks in schools and shows children fluffy white cygnets. “They are amazing creatures. Seeing a pair of swans and how they attract each other, it’s really so marvellous.”