Six wood skiffs set out from the city of Sunbury-on-Thames this month on a five-day mission with a single purpose: to uphold considered one of Britain’s extra obscure royal traditions and report again to the king on what number of swans he owns.
And this yr, due to an outbreak of avian flu, in addition to encounters with animals and aggressive people, the numbers weren’t good.
“It is rather disappointing,” David Barber, who has been the monarch’s official swan marker for 3 a long time and wears a swan feather in his cap, mentioned of this yr’s depend.
The annual expedition alongside a 79-mile stretch of the River Thames, generally known as the “swan upping,” traces its origins to a centuries-old English legislation that offers the reigning monarch the correct to say any unmarked mute swans present in open waters. These days, it serves extra as a census of the fowl and a wildlife conservation effort.
The counters on the River Thames recorded 94 cygnets, as younger swans are referred to as, in comparison with 155 final yr. That’s a roughly 40 p.c drop, and a fear for conservators and animal lovers alike.
Mr. Barber mentioned he didn’t count on this yr’s depend to be fairly as little as it was, and that the numbers had been essentially the most disappointing in years, Mr. Barber mentioned. He added that 2009 was a worse yr, when the uppers counted 84 younger swans. The depend was 166 cygnets in 2021 and 147 cygnets in 2019, he added. (The annual occasion didn’t occur in 2020 due to the pandemic.)
One of many causes for the decline is avian flu. There have been 190 confirmed instances of chicken flu in the UK since October final yr, with a overwhelming majority of them in England.
However there was additionally excellent news: Although the variety of cygnets was low, they had been all in wonderful well being, Mr. Barber mentioned.
To depend the swans, the flotilla of skiffs row up the Thames for 5 days. When the uppers see a breeding pair of swans or a cygnet, they place their boats across the birds, carry them from the water with their palms and test in the event that they’re wholesome and freed from accidents. They match the cygnets with a hoop bearing identification numbers, after which launch them again into the water.
All of it comes with fairly a little bit of flapping.
Within the twelfth century, the crown claimed possession over the mute swans, which had been typically served at banquets. (Consuming swans was made unlawful in 1981, once they grew to become protected as a wild chicken.) Whereas the king can declare any unmarked mute swans in open water, he shares the swans of the Thames with two livery firms, or historical London commerce guilds, whose birds are marked.
The long-necked birds, present in waterways across the nation, nonetheless take pleasure in a particular place in English society.
They’re an “ingrained factor within the British psyche,” mentioned Melanie Nelson, a trustee on the Swan Sanctuary, a company that cares for sick and injured swans and waterfowl.
“Everybody has grown up with swans being within the background,” she mentioned. “For them to not be there may be an appalling thought.”
In the present day, swans face different risks, within the type of viruses like avian flu, different animals and people. Swans typically get attacked by canine who enter the water, Ms. Nelson mentioned. Even a seemingly small damage to a swan may be life-threatening, she mentioned.
People have posed as a hazard to swans as effectively. There was a rise over the previous few years in assaults on swans, in response to reviews from the British information media.
In a number of incidents since 2020, swans have been discovered decapitated. And greater than as soon as lately, swans have been the sufferer of catapult assaults, together with in January when 4 had been killed by what the BBC described as “ball bearing catapults.”
This yr’s depend was the primary throughout King Charles III’s reign, however the transition appears to have been easy.