Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
Royal swan caretaker David Barber spent his first day in Stratford much like you might think someone in his position would – on the river getting acquainted with some of our own city’s beloved birds.
Barber – whose stop in Stratford earlier this week was one one of only two made in North America in conjunction with the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations – was accompanied by his wife Judith on a brief boat ride along the Avon River Monday morning. There they came across several of Stratford’s majestic swans, including Nick and Lacey and three of their cygnets, and the city’s newest item, Robby and Princess.
“I think it is absolutely a wonderful river, and you’ve got about the right number of swans on there,” Barber said afterwards. “It’s a lovely environment, and the habitat is well suitable for them. I think they’ve got a nice lifestyle there, I really do.”
As Queen Elizabeth II’s official swan marker for the last 19 years, Barber is responsible for conducting an annual census of newborn cygnets. The ancient practice on River Thames, in which swans are caught, marked and released, is known as swan upping.
The exercise dates back 900 years to medieval times when the British monarch first claimed ownership of the country’s mute swans. Some of England’s wealthiest could also own and breed swans by royal charter in exchange for money, good and services.
In those days, the birds were used predominantly for food, eaten during feasts and banquets, said Barber, who made a presentation at City Hall Auditorium Tuesday evening.
A family’s swans were marked with cuts in their beaks, a practice that has been abandoned and replaced with placing small rings around the birds’ legs.
Today, under royal charter from the 15th century, only two London livery companies, the Vintners and Dyers, are still entitled to a share of swans, while any unmarked mute swan found in England on open water remain property of the crown.
Joined by members of the two companies, Barber and the crown’s swan uppers – dressed in white pants with regal, red-coloured jackets – head out on the river each July for five days, travelling a 69-mile stretch of water on six traditional rowing skiffs. They work together to round up the swans and bring them ashore safely to be documented.
As a member of the royal household, Barber’s duties includes toasting the Queen, which has been done each year in the same location, in a lock just below Windsor Castle, since the 1850s. He is also responsible for a final report to Buckingham Palace on that year’s swan upping.
“Don’t ask me if the Queen reads it because I don’t know,” he joked. “But I very much doubt it.”
Swan upping remains a popular attraction in England, drawing hundreds of students, tourists and even filmmakers from around the world each year.
Barber is especially keen to have children come out to learn about swans and to educate them about what they can do to protect the birds in their natural habitat.
He noted about 40 per cent of cygnets hatched on River Thames each year die due to injuries sustained from fishing tackle. There are also problems with youth destroying eggs and shooting the birds with air guns.
“The swans have many natural predators, but man is the worst problem,” added Barber, noting a person guilty of cruelty to a swan can be prosecuted for damaging crown property.
Barber is committed to speaking with kids about swan conservation, and regularly visits young students in England. Tuesday morning, he spoke with students at Jeanne Sauvé Catholic school.
“The kids were very interested in (swan upping). The questions they were asking were wonderful. It’s nice to see that,” said Barber. “If we can get people interested in wildlife then that’s what we should do.”
Barber also spoke about what has been a “very special year in the United Kingdom” as its people honour Queen Elizabeth II for her 60 years on the throne.
Barber, who was a recipient of a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal, attended two of the more prominent events in Her Majesty’s honour, the pageant on River Thames, which hosted over 1,000 vessels, and the Queen’s anniversary service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
He said the Queen should be commended for maintaining such a busy schedule throughout the year.
“She’s a very hardworking lady,” he added. “Through this Diamond Jubilee year she’s been doing two to three (events) a day. For someone in their mid-80s, she’s very remarkable. She works extremely hard.”