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An English Tradition: Swan Upping

The King's swans must be counted.

Is there a more elegant creature than the swan? With their elongated necks and graceful movements, it should be no surprise that these creatures have a regal link. Most of the wild swans in England are owned by the King of England - and there’s an annual tradition to count them every summer.

It’s called Swan Upping, and it takes place every year, in the third week of July. It’s a tradition that has been around since the twelfth century. And in 900 years, it’s only been canceled twice: in 2012 due to flooding, and in 2020 due to the pandemic.

While the King of England owns most of the swans, two trade associations also have the rights to the swans: the Vintners and the Dyers. Traditionally, the practice of swan upping was to apportion the swans between these three proprietors. The swans were once a delicacy, to be reserved for the banquet tables of the wealthy. Today, however, no one eats them - and the practice is more about caring for the swans. The uppers do a census and check on the health of the swans, and the tradition allows researchers to identify potential threats and ensure the population continues to thrive.

The event takes place over five days, when swan uppers representing the King, the Vintners, and the Dyers row up the Thames River on skiffs, shallow, flat-bottomed boats with sharp bows and square sterns. Each of the groups wears a different traditional uniform - with the Vintners in black and white, the Dyers in dark blue, and the King’s uppers in scarlet.

The uppers seek out birds on the river, and when they spot a brood, they yell, “All up”, readying themselves to grab the birds. The Dyers and the Vintners attach a ring to their legs - a substitute for the old practice of nicking their bills. The King’s swans remain unlabeled.  If any swans look injured, they are treated on the banks of the river or taken to a facility to be looked after.

The late Queen Elizabeth II was called the Seigneur of the Swans - but Elizabeth II rarely attended the event, having only made it once, in 2009. Before they embark on their task, however, the uppers do raise a glass of port toward the castle as a toast to the monarch in her absence.


A few fun facts about swans:

Swans are big, but fast

Their wingspans can reach up to 10 feet. Despite how large they are, they can fly as fast as 60 miles per hour.

Their lives are long

Swans can live to be over 20 years old.

They really do mate for life

Swans will choose a mate when they are around 2-4 years old. They’ll usually stay with them for their entire lives, choosing another if their partner dies or they don’t manage to breed. If a female swan dies while looking after her eggs, the male will take over the job and sit on them until they hatch.

They can be very territorial

Swans can be a little aggressive during breeding season - chasing away those they perceive as threats by confronting them directly. They might hiss, flap their wings, or swim straight at their opponents. These magnificent creatures are not to be messed with!


Top photo courtesy of Frank 2012/

This couple is visiting the swans in Galway's Claddagh.

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