Six wooden skiffs set out from the town of Sunbury-on-Thames this month on a five-day mission with a single goal: to uphold one of Britain’s more obscure royal traditions and report back to the king on how many swans he owns.
And this year, because of an outbreak of avian flu, as well as encounters with animals and aggressive humans, the numbers were not good.
“It is very disappointing,” David Barber, who has been the monarch’s official swan marker for three decades and wears a swan feather in his cap, said of this year’s count.
The annual expedition along a 79-mile stretch of the River Thames, known as the “swan upping,” traces its origins to a centuries-old English law that gives the reigning monarch the right to claim any unmarked mute swans found in open waters. Nowadays, it serves more as a census of the fowl and a wildlife conservation effort.
The counters on the River Thames recorded 94 cygnets, as young swans are called, compared to 155 last year. That’s a roughly 40 percent drop, and a worry for conservators and animal lovers alike.
Mr. Barber said he didn’t expect this year’s count to be quite as low as it was, and that the numbers were the most disappointing in years, Mr. Barber said. He added that 2009 was a worse year, when the uppers counted 84 young swans. The count was 166 cygnets in 2021 and 147 cygnets in 2019, he added. (The annual event didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.)
One of the reasons for the decline is avian flu. There have been 190 confirmed cases of bird flu in the United Kingdom since October last year, with a vast majority of them in England.
But there was also good news: Even though the number of cygnets was low, they were all in excellent health, Mr. Barber said.
To count the swans, the flotilla of skiffs row up the Thames for five days. When the uppers see a breeding pair of swans or a cygnet, they position their boats around the birds, lift them from the water with their hands and check if they’re healthy and free of injuries. They fit the cygnets with a ring bearing identification numbers, and then release them back into the water.
It all comes with quite a bit of flapping.
In the 12th century, the crown claimed ownership over the mute swans, which were often served at banquets. (Eating swans was made illegal in 1981, when they became protected as a wild bird.) While the king can claim any unmarked mute swans in open water, he shares the swans of the Thames with two livery companies, or ancient London trade guilds, whose birds are marked.
The long-necked birds, found in waterways around the country, still enjoy a special place in English society.
They’re an “ingrained thing in the British psyche,” said Melanie Nelson, a trustee at the Swan Sanctuary, an organization that cares for sick and injured swans and waterfowl.
“Everyone has grown up with swans being in the background,” she said. “For them not to be there is an appalling thought.”
Today, swans face other dangers, in the form of viruses like avian flu, other animals and humans. Swans often get attacked by dogs who enter the water, Ms. Nelson said. Even a seemingly small injury to a swan can be life-threatening, she said.
Humans have posed as a danger to swans as well. There has been an increase over the last few years in attacks on swans, according to reports from the British news media.
In several incidents since 2020, swans have been found decapitated. And more than once recently, swans have been the victim of catapult attacks, including in January when four were killed by what the BBC described as “ball bearing catapults.”
This year’s count was the first during King Charles III’s reign, but the transition seems to have been smooth.