The ceremony of Swan Upping dates from the 12th Century when the ownership of all unmarked mute swans on certain stretches of the river Thames and its surrounding tributaries was claimed by the Crown in order to ensure an ample supply of meat for royal banquets and feasts. Swans used to be a luxury food. Today, Swan Uppers are concerned about conservation rather than the kitchen.
The swans face a variety of perils such as being shot, attacked by dogs or getting caught up in fishing tackle.
Royal ownership is shared with the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the 15th century. These companies were trade groups of wine merchants and cloth dyers. By being granted shared ownership it meant that a certain number of swans could be culled for the Company's feasts as well as the royal feasts.
The Swan Upping ceremony developed as the means by which the Crown, the Vintners and the Dyers identified their particular swans. They record the number of birds on the River and mark the new cygnets (baby swans) to show who owns them.
Swans are no longer eaten but the practice of counting and marking the swans on the River Thames still takes place in the third week of July every year.
The Queen only claims ownership of swans on certain parts of the River Thames and the rivers which run into it. Her special title is "Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans".