Today (Friday 22nd July) is the last day of this year’s swan upping, due to finish at Abingdon Bridge at 5 in the afternoon. Perhaps you have seen the signs, and perhaps you have seen it before and know all about it. You might also have heard that all swans in this country belong to the Queen. But others might be wondering what this is all about. What is so special about swans? How do they belong in Abingdon? And why do they need to be “upped”?
Let me first give you a brief introduction to swans. There is more than one breed of swan which you might see in the UK, but we are talking about Mute Swans (scientific name Cygnus olor). These are the most numerous swans, and they live in this country all year round. They are very conspicuous birds – large, pure white, with orange beaks with black markings on them. The male and female birds look the same, the only difference is in the little black hump at the top of the beak, which swells in males during the breeding season.
Mute Swans are not actually mute, they utter a variety of grunts, hisses and snorts, but they don’t have a flight call. The whistling or drumming noise you can hear as they fly is produced by the wings.
Mute swans usually mate for life, and a pair will stay in the same area and use the same nesting site. Swans can get very territorial, though, and there can be fights to the death. When one partner dies, the other goes through a period of mourning, but might eventually find a new partner.
Swans breed in the spring. They start by making a nest on the edge of the water, often among long fringe vegetation. The male brings the material and the female builds it into the nest. Swans can have up to twelve eggs, and both parents take turns to keep the eggs warm. The female is more efficient at this though, because she has a “brood patch”, a naked area on her underside which transmits her body warmth to the eggs unhindered. The male does not have this, and while he keeps the eggs warm when the female has to feed, it is mostly the female who sits on the eggs. After 35 to 42 days, the chicks, known as cygnets, hatch, and only 24 hours later they are ready to enter the water.
So, do all swans belong to the Queen? Well, not all of them, but most of them, in a way. There are three other possible owners of swans: the Abbotsbury Swannery, and two of London’s livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers. They own some of the swans, and any offspring of these swans will be theirs as well. All other swans in open waters are indeed owned by the Queen, although really she only exercises this right on some stretches of the Thames. This is where “swan upping” comes in. It is the annual census of swans on the Thames, and it is conducted by the Queen’s Swan Marker and several Swan Uppers. They row up the Thames, checking the health of all the swans and measuring and weighing the cygnets. Those belonging to the Abbotsbury Swannery, the Vintners or the Dyers are ringed, but the others are left unmarked. This is why every unmarked swan is presumed to belong to the Queen.
Swan Upping has been taking place for centuries, and in the past the swans were a valuable commodity. They were prized as food, and not everyday food either, but as a roast fit for feasts and banquets. Although there probably went quite a bit of poaching on as well. Swan Upping regularly comes to Abingdon as well. It is a time for ceremony and celebration, but also an opportunity to educate the public about swans and what is done for their conservation.
Today swans are no longer eaten, and they are protected by law. It is illegal to kill, harm or even disturb swans, or to damage their nests. It is even illegal to take eggs from an abandoned nest and incubate them artificially, or to take a dead swan home for a private taxidermy project.
Because swans are such conspicuous and beautiful birds, and because they are numerous and often seen, they have become firmly linked with the Thames. Abingdon’s coat of arms features two swans, which represent the River Thames. The Thames has been of huge importance to Abingdon throughout its history, from the earliest settlers in the area to the people who transported goods on it during later centuries. So it is no surprise that the Thames is referenced in the coat of arms, but instead of having the river itself depicted, it is represented by the swans. When you go to Abingdon Museum and stick a coin into the collection box, you can see two swans dancing round (along with a lion and a unicorn). Those, too, are the Thames swans from the coat of arms.
So next time you sit by the river and watch the swans glide past, enjoy the sight of those lovely birds and think of their significance to Abingdon.
Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer
Featured image: Swan upping at Abingdon Bridge, photograph given to the Museum by Elizabeth Parkman. Other photos and brochure from the same source.