Queen Elizabeth II owns all of the UK's swans. And every year, she counts them


ETON, UK — Here is a fun piece of trivia: The queen owns all the swans in Britain.

Or, more accurately: Any unclaimed mute swan in open waters in England and Wales is hers if she wants it. This was a more valid piece of legislation back in medieval times, when swans were a delicacy reserved for the wealthiest dinner tables.

But Britain often displays a peculiar preference for doing things the way they used to be done then, rather than how they should be done now. The swan law stands, and so does the annual census of all the swans in the River Thames, a centuries-old tradition known as the Swan Upping that takes place the third week in July.

GlobalPost went on a swan upping. It was wild.

Just hanging out at the annual royal swan census, as you do as a Serious Journalist #globalpost #swanupping #yesthatsathing

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The armada of uppers departs at 8:45 a.m. from a bridge spanning the River Thames. On one side of the river is Eton, with its long street of stores selling cricket gear and tweed jackets leading to the famed boys’ school. On the other is Windsor, where the castle rises grandly from the pretty, leafy town below.

The queen is in residence at Windsor Castle at the moment. On Sunday she drove herself to church. A young family was pushing a stroller in the road, and rather than wait for them to move aside she swerved onto the grass and drove around them. That’s the kind of stuff you get to do when you are queen.

Even for someone with a very high tolerance of ceremonial events, the swan upping is a task Her Majesty is comfortable delegating. The queen has attended the Swan Upping exactly once in her 63-year reign, in 2009.

The swan upping is a task Her Majesty is comfortable delegating. The Queen has attended the annual event exactly once in her 63-year reign.

Before the boats push off, the uppers pour themselves a glass of port and raise it toward the castle, in honor of the absent monarch.

Over the years, swan upping has become less about ownership and more about conservation. Today, juvenile swans — cygnets — are counted, weighed, checked for injury or illness and then released.

The upping has at times unearthed alarming trends in the swan populace. A sudden die-off in the 1980s was attributed to swans swallowing lead fishing weights. Numbers bounced back after they were banned.

The pomp and circumstance remains because these are, technically, the queen’s birds. One of her official titles is, actually, Seigneur of the Swans.

“The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries,” the monarchy’s official website states.

It’s not clear what “exercising ownership” means, in this case. Maybe sometimes she comes down from the castle and shoots one, just because she can.

For 700 years swan-related royal duties were handled by the Keeper of the Swans. In 1993, a major shakeup in royal swan bureaucracy split the position into two offices: Swan Marker and Swan Warden. Since then the roles have been held, respectively, by David Barber and Chris Perrins.

If there is a non-swan face of this upping, it is David Barber. He wears a white cap with a swan feather in it and a scarlet jacket with luscious gold embroidery. His trousers are the white of an oligarch’s yacht. He is very tan.

It’s not clear how David Barber got his job. A German reporter asks him outright; he smiles and says mysteriously, “I can’t really answer that, can I.” He owns a boat business, he says, when pressed for further details. He is not an ornithologist. “I’m the man on the ground,” he says expansively, smiling a cruise director’s smile. What does that even mean? He works in a boat.

I'm so sorry, swans. You deserve better. #swanupping

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The flotilla progresses for 30 minutes, the swan uppers in skiffs powered by rowers with their trousers rolled to the knees. Suddenly there’s a call — Alllllllllll up! A cygnet has been spotted. Time to up some swans.

“Oh, it’s all kicking off now, is it?” a photographer for the local paper says softly to himself, like we’re going into combat.

The skiffs descend on the young, fuzzy gray birds, penning them in near the bank. The boat maneuvering is awkward, especially with all the pennants. Barber sits in the back of his skiff barking marginally helpful orders like “Steady on!” and “There she is.” There is no possible way this is the most efficient way to catch swans. None.

You cannot tell me for a goddam second that this is the most efficient way to count swans. #globalpost #swanupping

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The boats tie up on the grassy banks of a tiny village outside of Windsor. A gaggle of white-haired ladies emerges from the modest riverside homes to watch as the birds are trussed and carried onshore. “Dear things,” one murmurs.

While the ceremonial boats wrangle for position, a small motorboat pulls up to the bank. A man in a sweatshirt and the hat your uncle wears to go fishing hops out and picks up a worn tackle box.

This is Chris Perrins, the Royal Swan Warden. Perrins is a professor at Oxford University. He’s the former president of the International Ornithological Congress and author of "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds: The Definitive Guide to Birds of the World."

Perrins gives you the feeling that if you asked, he could tell you about every bird on this river — not every species, but each individual bird. But he’s not here for such nonsense. He kneels down on the grass and gets on with the business of studying swans.

The tied-up cygnets are lined on the bank like detainees. Perrins and the uppers weigh and measure each one. It’s only two days into the five-day census, but swan numbers seem low this year. On Monday, Barber says, they counted one-third fewer cygnets than they did in the same stretch last year.

When the weighing is done, the cygnets are released back into the water. They paddle away with a backward glance, as if to say, That was weird.

We have stopped in a part of England that still looks like this #swanupping #globalpost

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We pull up at a scheduled stop at Oakley Court Hotel, a stunning Victorian manor. The “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was filmed there, a fellow passenger in the press boat informs me. She’s a freelance photographer for a local lifestyle magazine and a real font of local trivia. (“See that house? That’s where Churchill was conceived. Those are Egyptian geese. Look, that’s where Mrs. Astor used to live.")

Milling on the banks is a crowd of people who've come to watch the swan upping. They are wearing straw boater hats and tweed jackets without irony. The older men have canes, the classy wood kind, not the ones with tennis balls on the bottom. “Right, time to get to my champagne,” I hear a man say. It is 10:14 a.m.

A group of schoolchildren has gathered on the shore. Barber gives interviews to the media. Perrins kneels on the grass and proffers a cygnet he has procured from somewhere, and the children gather around to pet it.

I chat with one of the rowers to find out how he got the gig. “We was all winners of the Doggett Coat and Badge,” he says proudly. I nod, because we’re in a place where it seems like you should just know what the Doggett Coat and Badge is. (Later I find out it's the world's oldest rowing race.)

The river is sparkling. The weather is perfect. The sloping lawn is dotted with canvas slingback deck chairs and they are pristinely clean, not grimy pants-ruiners like every other canvas deck chair you’ve ever sat on. The Oakley Court Hotel looks like the Titanic inside. When you ask the barman in the hotel to fill up your water bottle he puts ice in it, like you’re a Rothschild.

When I go back outside I think for a minute the press boat has left without me. I’m a little sorry when I realize it hasn’t.

Every item of clothing you see here is being worn unironically.

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The boats press on. There have been no new cygnet sightings. It will take at least five hours to travel this stretch of river. The sun is hot overhead.

“What are they doing?” one of the German journalists asks of the boats up ahead.

“They’re checking for non-existent swan babies,” her colleague responds without looking up from her phone.

When you’re all together in a glorified canoe, you might as well be neighborly. Our self-appointed tour guide tells us that the river island we’re passing has peacocks.

Here’s a question, a man across the skiff asks. If you have a peacock, and it wanders into a neighbor’s garden and lays an egg, who does the chick belong to? She mulls this over and gives a considered answer, taking into account land rights and peacock family structure.

“Peacocks don’t lay eggs. Peahens do,” the man says, settling smugly back into his seat. “Everybody falls into that trap.” She doesn’t push him overboard, but she should.

Here is a little truth about swans. No matter how elegant and demure they seem, these birds, when provoked, are vicious, strong and aggressive.

The hours pass. It emerges that Mr. Peacock is not actually employed by any journalistic enterprise. He’s a friend of David Barber, and is here as a personal photographer to the Royal Swan Marker. When pressed for more details on how Barber got the job, he offers no clearer insight. “You have to be someone of a bit of standing” is all he’ll say.

Mr. Peacock also seems to fancy himself a minder to the journalists on board, making sure all swan-related coverage reflects favorably on the Swan Upping. It’s unclear if anyone has actually asked him to take on this role.

The people want to see their swan census as an unambiguously positive affair, he seems to believe. Departures from that narrative are a problem.

“You don’t show swans with their wings flapping,” he says. “It’s not done.” Last year a swan upper accidentally put a cygnet back in the water with its legs still tied. The mistake was caught and the bird was fine, but Mr. Peacock pulled aside a BBC cameraman he’d noticed lingering on the scene. “I told him, Can I give you a bit of career advice? Dump it.”

This seems kind of threatening for a news clip about birds, but whatever.

Baby swans: sighted. Boats pen them in, separate from parents.

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Suddenly: Swans. A whole family of them. Four fuzzy gray babies flanked by two adults. The boats close in, separating the babies from their parents. The parents are furious.

Here is a little truth about swans. No matter how elegant and demure they seem, swans, when provoked, are vicious, strong and aggressive.

One of the most famous swans in Britain was Mr. Asbo, who conducted a campaign of terror against boaters on Cambridge’s River Cam from 2009 to 2012. (Asbo is British shorthand for an “anti-social behavior order,” a misdemeanor handed out for loutish behavior.) The swan was relocated to an undisclosed location after a string of attacks on hapless boaters. But new generations of mean swans — dubbed “Asboy” and “Asbaby” by the local press — have risen up to take his place, like a crime family after a capping.

This kind of unprovoked anger is unusual. What is not unusual is for swans to react aggressively toward people interfering with their babies or mates, as these uppers are doing.

Angry swans make terrible sounds: deep, furious hisses. While one swan encircles the boats helplessly, the other arches its wings and the feathers on its neck jump to attention. Then it charges.

“Whack ‘em,” the Scottish cameraman in the boat says to himself.

Inside the press boat, there is chaos as well. The swans’ distress is getting to the lifestyle photographer, and she’s shouting comforting words at the birds and tossing them pieces of her crackers. The swans ignore her. The boat pilot finally tells her to pull it together and just take some pictures.

A cygnet gets a cuddle from a volunteer at Swan Support, a swan rescue organization.

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In the early afternoon, to a crowd of cheering schoolchildren, the boats pull into a mooring in the riverside village of Cookham and end the day. Across the river are the giant offices of DB Marine, the industrial boat supplier belonging to none other than Swan Marker David Barber. 

It’s not clear what the upping will reveal about the state of the mute swan this year. There are three more days to go and so many more swans to anger before the up is done.

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