Royal tradition: Counting the swans on the River Thames

By Leonore Shick River-Thames.jpgQueens Royal Swan Marker David Barber checks out a cygnet near Staines, England, as the ancient tradition of counting swans along the River Thames begins, Monday July 17, 2017. The ritual known as Swan Upping dates back to the 12th century when the ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water in Britain was claimed by the Crown in order to ensure a ready supply for feasts. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)

LONDON — The annual count of swans belonging to Queen Elizabeth II has begun on the River Thames.

The five-day event known as Swan Upping dates back to the 12th century and began as a ritual to ensure there were enough swans for feasting. Now it is more about conservation. Data from the census is collected to assess the growth of the swan population.

The British monarch traditionally claims ownership of all unmarked Mute Swans in open water. Mute Swans are a species of orange-billed swan.

Swan Uppers — a team of dedicated boaters — are tasked with finding swans on a specific stretch of the River Thames. When a group of cygnets is spotted, they cry "All Up," then mark the young birds and check them for disease or injury.

In 1985, the swan population on the Swan Upping route had fallen to just seven swans due to poisoning from lead weights. Thanks to a lead ban, numbers have recovered since then, but not to levels found before World War II.

David Barber, the queen's official Swan Marker, hopes the event will draw attention to the dangers young swans face on the river. Threats range from natural predators, dogs, oil pollution and egg theft.

Swans also often suffer serious injuries from swallowing fishing hooks or flying into overhead wires and are sometimes attacked by people.

As a result, cygnet numbers have decreased in recent years. But Barber said this year's preliminary results are looking positive.

"We've caught more young cygnets with less injuries than before," he said of the first day's count. "We are extremely pleased."

The full results will only be clear at the end of the week, however, as it takes five days for the Swan Marker to complete his path up the Thames.

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