Ministers eye Her Majesty's swans

By Ben Leapman, Home Affairs Correspondent, Sunday Telegraph
Daily Telegraph

Swan-upping on the Thames. Traditionally, the Monarch owns all unmarked mute swans on the River Thames (external - login to view)

Here the cygnets have been caught and are weighed in a red bag before being marked and returned to the river.

The centuries-old tradition in which royal officials row up the Thames for "swan-upping" may soon be consigned to the history books.

The Royal Prerogative by which swans belong to the Queen looks likely to be scrapped under Gordon Brown's programme of constitutional reform.

It would see her stripped of the title "Seigneur of the Swans" and would mean an end to the "upping" ceremony, held at the end of July, in which the officials catch the birds, weigh them, tend to injuries and mark their legs with rings. Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, has announced a sweeping package of changes to the way Britain is governed. Under the proposals, the Government would surrender to MPs its powers to declare war and dissolve Parliament.

The powers are wielded by ministers under the Royal Prerogative. An element which went largely unnoticed, however, was a decision to review "archaic" aspects of the prerogative, including the Queen's ownership of swans.

Mute swans, which are native to the British Isles, were granted royal status in the 12th century, when they were considered a delicacy at the dining table. Since then, any swan found on open water has been deemed to be the property of the Crown. By 1378, a Keeper of the King's Swans had been appointed.

Since the 15th century, the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners have also owned swans, distinguished from the Queen's birds by marks cut into their beaks.

Scrapping the royal status of swans would bring at least two job losses: the historic posts of Queen's Swan Marker and Queen's Swan Warden. It would also mean the Queen could no longer give swans as gifts. Last year she presented the Bishop of Bath and Wells with two adults and two cygnets for his palace moat.

The current Queen's Swan Marker, David Barber, said that he had not been informed of the threat to his ceremonial role. He said: "The swan-upping side that we are in charge of does a lot of welfare good. It's about looking after swans. It might be disappointing to see that disappear."

Further historic royal powers which may be swept away include the Crown's right to impress men into the Royal Navy; the monarch's guardianship of infants, and the Queen's ownership of all "royal fish" - sturgeon, dolphins, porpoises and whales - caught in British waters.

The Green Paper published by Mr Straw last week, The Governance of Britain, states: "The Government will consult on whether certain prerogative powers, many of which may now be considered archaic, might be transferred elsewhere or even abolished."

Whitehall sources said, however, that swans' unique status might be retained if it is shown to be of practical benefit.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "The Government proposes to consult widely to determine the extent of the prerogative and where it might be appropriate to modernise individual powers and place them on a statutory footing.

The Government has had full discussions with Her Majesty and will continue to do so as appropriate, as the process of consultation continues."


The Loyal Toast in Romney Lock. The swan uppers turn to face the castle to toast the Monarch with the words "Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans."

Swan Upping dates from medieval times, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans at a time when swans were considered an important food source for banquets and feasts. Today, the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked Mute swans in open water, but the Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies, who were both granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century. Nowadays, the swans are counted and marked, but rarely eaten except perhaps occasionally at State Banquets.

The Queen's Swan Marker and Swan Uppers, accompanied by the Swan Uppers of the Vinters' and Dyers' livery companies use six traditional Thames rowing skiffs in their five day journey upstream as far as Abingdon. By tradition, scarlet uniforms are worn by The Queen's Swan Marker and Swan Uppers, and each boat flies their appropriate flags and pennants.

The Queen's Swan Marker produces a report at the completion of Swan Upping each year, which provides data on the number of swans accounted for, including broods and cygnets. The cygnets are weighed and measured to obtain estimates of growth rates, and the birds are examined for any sign of injury (commonly caused by fishing hooks and line). The cygnets are ringed with individual identification numbers by The Queen's Swan Warden, whose role is scientific and non-ceremonial.

Apart from Swan Upping, The Queen's Swan Marker has other duties: he advises local organisations throughout the country on swan welfare and incidents involving swans, he monitors the health of local swan populations, and he briefs fishing and boating organisations on how to work with existing wildlife and maintain existing natural habitats. He works closely with swan rescue organisations and carries out the rescue of sick and injured swans when relevant, and coordinates the removal of swans from stretches of the river Thames used for summer rowing regattas.