Swan Upping is an annual ceremony in England in which mute swans on the River Thames are rounded up, caught, ringed, and then released. The ceremony dates back to the 12th century.
By prerogative right, the British Crown enjoys ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water. Rights over swans may, however, be granted to a British subject by the Crown. The ownership of swans in a given body of water was commonly granted to landowners up to the 16th century. The only bodies still to exercise such rights are two livery companies of the City of London and Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset. Along the River Thames, the ownership of swans is shared equally among the Crown, the Vintners' Company and the Dyers' Company.
What happens at Swan Upping?
It's the traditional means by which the swans on the River Thames are apportioned among the three proprietors. Its main practical purposes today are to conduct a census of swans and check their health. It occurs annually in the third week of July. Over five days, the Crown's, Vintners' and the Dyers' respective swan uppers row up the river in skiffs in recent centuries from Sunbury-on-Thames to Abingdon on Thames.
The Crown's Upper wear red, the Vinter's white and the Dyer's Uppers wear navy blue. All the Uppers are Thames Watermen and many are sons and grandsons of former Swan Uppers.
Swans caught by the Crown's swan uppers under the direction of the Swan Marker are left unmarked, except for a lightweight ring linked to the database of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Those caught by the Dyers and Vintners receive a similar ring on the other leg. Originally, rather than being ringed, swans' bills would be nicked using a metal implement, a practice reflected in the pub name The Swan with Two Necks in the City connected with the Vintners, a corruption of "The Swan with Two Nicks". Nicking is no longer practised.
On 20 July 2009, Queen Elizabeth II, as "Seigneur of the Swans" (Lord of the Swans), attended the Swan Upping ceremony for the first time in her reign. This was the first time that the monarch had personally watched the ceremony in centuries.
In 2012, exceptional high river flows for summer prompted a partial cancellation between Sunbury-on-Thames and Windsor, the first definitively known cancellation (albeit partial) in its 900-year history.
The first known full cancellation took place in both 2020 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. In 2022, Swan Upping took place during a heatwave in South East England, with temperatures exceeding 40°C. On the hottest days, the swans and cygnets were not landed but taken into the skiffs, ringed, checked for injuries and returned to the water.
After the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2022, King Charles III - who has a keen interest in wildlife and the environment - became the new "Seigneur of the Swans".