On the Seventh Day of Christmas – swans court royal favour

For centuries, swans have been viewed as symbols of purity and grace – they are easily spotted, with white feathers, slender curved necks and some of the largest wingspans in the avian world.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans-a-swimming…

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s fair to say many of us are talking about this year’s swan song moments. But what is a swan song moment, what makes swans so special, and why are they given special protected status, as property of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II?

A well-protected species

Cygnus olor, or the mute swan, is a breed of bird that graces our waterways, ponds and rivers, known for its distinctive appearance. Found across large parts of the UK, this breed of bird is experiencing a revival, thanks to effective conservation efforts over many years.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimates that the UK is home to as many as 6,400 breeding pairs, and a UK wintering population (between October and March) of as many as 74,000 mute swans in total. Placed on the amber conservation list, mute swans are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning.

However, the ban of lead weights for fishing, as well as their protected status, as enshrined in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, have helped mute swans recover in recent years.

Not only that, but mute swans enjoy a special status among British birds.

A royal connection

Like something out of a fairytale, mute swans have been considered the property of the Crown since the 12th century. According to the Royal Family’s official website, the Queen owns all unmarked mute swans which swim in open waters across the country. This archaic right of ownership is believed to stem from the fact that swans were often hunted and eaten as part of ancient feasts and banquets.

However, in a modern context, the mute swan is protected and the Crown helps aid the effort to conserve them through ‘swan upping’, a form of elaborate annual census. Over five days during the third week of July, the Queen’s very own Swan Marker leads a flotilla of Swan Uppers, often from two historic livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Vitners, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, down a stretch of the River Thames. They proclaim, “All up!” upon spotting a family of swans and their cygnets as they go.

Swan upping might seem outdated, but it is a fantastic way to monitor swan populations, checking cygnets for their weight and any sign of injury. This proves useful, as cygnets are often vulnerable to being snared by fishing lines or hooks. Those that belong to the Crown are left unmarked, but other non-mute swan cygnets are ringed with a unique identification number, allowing the Vintners and the Dyers livery companies to identify swans.

The story of mute swans is a fascinating case study in mixing old ways of conservation, such as swan upping, alongside more modern efforts, such as actively pursuing legislation to ensure that our rivers, canals and waterways are kept safe and clean from the effects of pollution caused by human activities.

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