THE number of swans in the Henley area is back on the rise, say the men tasked with counting the birds each year.
Mute swans, famously owned by the Queen, can often be seen on the water with their broods of cygnets, which hatch in the spring and are grown to almost full size by July.
But with every new offspring comes the job of counting the birds on the river, otherwise known as swan upping.
Each year, the “uppers” take to the water for five days to count the new families, as well as ring, weight and measure the cygnets.
This year’s ceremony began at Sunbury on Monday and finishes at Abingdon Bridge today (Friday), a journey of almost 80 miles.
The Henley Standard joined the uppers on Wednesday as they travelled from Hambleden Lock to Henley.
The tradition dates back to the 12th century, when the Crown declared ownership of all swans.
Representatives of the Crown and the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Livery Companies travel down the Thames in traditional rowing skiffs in search of swans.
When they find a family, they shout “All up!” and take the birds aboard their boats before mooring at the bank.
The animals are bound before each of the cygnets is weighed, measured and checked for injuries.
The youngsters are then tagged by either of the livery company’s colours or left unmarked, meaning they belong to the Queen.
Dozens of people gathered on the banks of the lock to see the boats arrive at Hambleden at about 12 noon, where they had travelled from Marlow.
Despite blistering heat, the crews were wearing their traditional outfits, which are coloured red, blue and white for the Crown, Dyers’ and Vintners’ companies respectively. Among the Vintners’ crew was rowing coach Ross Hunter, who is based at Leander Club in Henley.
As well as the six skiffs, there were several support boats and the Georgian passenger boat of the Windsor and Maidenhead boat company, which carried a group who wanted to follow the upping.
Passengers on the boat wore hats decorated with swan feathers as they watched the event.
Others followed the action from the banks, either walking down the towpath or attempting to follow the boats on bicycles. A family of swans, four young and two adults, was found several hundred metres upstream from Hambleden Lock, and was promptly rounded up by the crews and brought ashore.
Visitors gathered around to take pictures as the cygnets were measured and weighed, and tags attached to their legs before they were released.
One upper nearly tumbled in to the water as he released one of the adult swans, before the family swam away.
A larger group containing seven cygnets was found further down the river on the grounds of the Fawley Court estate.
The uppers moored up before chasing the birds down on the bank, while other boats moored up in the middle of the river to watch them at work. They included the New Orleans, a steamer from Hobbs of Henley, and a smaller passenger boat appropriately named Cygnet.
A final group of five youngsters was found on the towpath near Leander Club, which were measured on the banks as members of the public gathered round to watch. Two of the birds were “given” to each livery company, with the fifth becoming property of the Queen.
David Barber, the Queen’s swan marker, then let members of the public stroke and hold the cygnets before they were released in to the river.
A total of 16 new birds were found between Hambleden Lock and Mill Meadows, an increase from just nine last year. A typical breeding pair will lay six eggs a year, which hatch in late March or April, but many cygnets die before reaching adulthood.
In 2013 and 2014, the census discovered one breeding pair with six cygnets, while the swan upping was called off in 2012 due to bad weather.
As this year’s convoy arrived at Mill Meadows, a crowd gathered to meet them and take photographs, including Mayor Julian Brookes, Ludo Keston, chief executive of the River and Rowing Museum and Lt Col Sir Andrew Ford, Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office at Buckingham Palace. The party then had lunch at the museum before continuing upstream towards Marsh Lock and Sonning in the afternoon.
Mr Barber, who lives in Henley, said that despite the number of swans in the Henley area increasing the overall count has been affected by dog attacks, vandalism and natural predators on the river.
He said: “We have had a lot of dog attacks this year, which I know have destroyed nests in Henley and Caversham. The mink are increasing on the river and are taking newly-hatched cygnets. There has also been vandalism with youths stealing eggs.”
Mr Barber, who has been the Queen’s swan marker since 1993 and was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order in 2014, added: “It’s been the hottest year we’ve ever had and when the chaps in the skiffs are rowing it’s hard work.”