August 2, 2013 6:39 pm

Nine hundred years of counting swans

Swan upping evolved from the supply of birds for the table into an exercise in conservation

If, just less than two weeks ago, you could have taken a step back from the wall-to-wall media coverage of the arrival of a baby who may or may not become a ceremonial figurehead half a century from now (reporters shrieking “still no sign of a name!” only hours after the birth, and interminable footage of the closed doors of the Lindo wing at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, as if news direction had been placed in the hands of Samuel Beckett), you might have reflected on the extraordinary malleability and durability – the two are surely connected – of ancient British institutions.

The House of Windsor is arguably neither British nor especially ancient. But another ceremonial institution replete with arcane names (such as the Queen’s Swan Marker) and fancy costumes that I recently had the honour of observing at first-hand has better claims to being both. Swan upping – the annual census of mute swans on the river Thames – has been going on in some form for 900 years.

Ownership of swans has been a matter of some sensitivity for much of that time; the first record of royal swan ownership is dated 1186 and unmarked mute swans have belonged to the Crown since at least that time; in the Middle Ages, monarchs realised that giving rights to own swans was a convenient way of raising revenue. Families with title to these birds incised heraldic marks in the beaks with what one hopes was a very sharp knife.

The ownership of swans became exclusive to the Crown, the Ilchester family of Abbotsbury, and two City livery companies, the Vintners’ and the Dyers’.

Nowadays, every July, six lightweight skiffs set off upriver manned by “swan uppers” who round up, weigh and examine all the families of swans they can find. One small change of the past hundred years or so that I can report is that the birds are no longer immobilised with ropes tied around the wings, in the manner you see from Stanley Spencer’s passionate painting of “Swan upping at Cookham”, but have their legs tied behind them. This arrangement does look a little undignified, I have to say, but does not harm the birds.

The reasons for all this originally had more do with gastronomy than ornithology. As Jim Holme, of the Dyers’ Company, explained to me, swan meat was never especially appreciated for its taste. “The most polite comment is that it ‘looks like venison, carves like beef and tastes like tuna’,” he said. “Some simply say it resembles fishy mutton”. However, reclothed in its feathers and covered in gold leaf, a swan would make a splendid centrepiece at a ceremonial banquet.

Of course, no one – well, very few people – would think of a swan as a culinary speciality these days. That was something I pondered as a party of men in boaters chugged up the river from Windsor to Maidenhead, their faces getting redder in the hot sun (a welcome change from the sodden summer of 2012, when swan upping was cancelled for the first time in its history). For there has been an almost imperceptible metamorphosis from an activity originally organised to supply big white birds for the table into an exercise in conservation.

There is a serious side to this. In the 1980s, swans on the Thames and elsewhere began to suffer birth defects and declines in population, which were eventually traced to the lead used in fishing tackle. Legislation was passed in 1987 to ban lead weights.

Although no longer poisoned by lead, swans still suffer from swallowing or becoming entangled in fishing tackle. They regularly fly into power lines and sometimes land on wet roads believing them to be waterways. More shocking are the attacks by vandals and people who can only be called sadists. Mindless individuals go around taking potshots at these magnificent birds. In the most sickening documented case of all, someone decided to bolt together the upper and lower mandibles of a swan’s beak using a rivet gun.

As part of its custodianship of the swans, the Dyers’ Company supports Swan Lifeline, a charity that is based at Cuckoo Weir Island on the Thames near Eton. Devoted teams of vets and volunteers look after injured swans before returning them to the river.

Apparently some, perhaps finding life in the wild a little strenuous, voluntarily check themselves back in to Cuckoo Weir.

Some of these comments about swan upping could be extended to the City Livery companies, which have evolved from medieval guilds into entities that are essentially charities, and to that magnet of ceremonial activity, the royal family itself. None of these institutions, critics could argue, has much to do with democracy, or with Enlightenment rationality.

But they act as a benign sort of glue, helping to ensure that this strange old country runs relatively smoothly and placidly, as the Thames does in its central stretch – at least when not swollen by floods or buffeted by storm tides from the North Sea.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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