Every summer for the past 800 years, an all-men team of rowers has traveled the River Thames in England counting swans as part of an ancient royal ceremony known as Swan Upping.
That all changed last week, however, when Karen Hammond, 62, from South Dakota became the first woman since the 12th century to take part in the ritual, which happens each year during the third week of July and involves counting, weighing and tagging baby swans between Sunbury-on-Thames and Abingdon Bridge.
The Queen owns all mute swans (the most common of three local species) found on open water in the U.K. as part of a tradition dating back to the 12th century. According to the official British Monarchy website: “The swans are also given a health check and ringed with individual identification numbers by The Queen’s Swan Warden. The swans are then set free again.”
Hammond, who wore the traditional scarlet shirt and white trousers of the Swan Uppers for the ceremony, was invited to take part by friend David Barber, who holds the official title of Queen’s Swan Marker.
Barber chose Hammond because of her love of rowing and wildlife. Having grown up in South Dakota, Hammond didn’t have any experience with swans, but she came to love them after she married an Englishman, The Times reports.
“Because there were lots of Canada geese thrashing about it was very frantic,” Hammond told The Times about her experience of catching swans. “But there’s no reason at all why women couldn’t do this.”
As with many quirky English traditions, Swan Upping is a combination of the eccentric and the useful.
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While the Queen owns all of the unmarked mute swans on the River Thames, she only exercises the right between Sunbury and Abingdon. It’s here that the rowers travel in a flotilla of six traditional wooden skiffs, flying ancient banners from the Swan Uppers, the Vintners Company, and the Dyers Company – both of which have taken part since the 15th century.
In ancient times the birds were counted so that the royal family knew exactly how many swans they had to feast on during state banquets. Anyone who dared to poach a swan, therefore, risked grave consequences.
These days it’s all about conservation and education. Essentially, the Swan Uppers carry out a census of young swans born in the spring, so that conservationists can keep track of their population on the river.
Whenever they see a brood of young swans on the river bank, the Uppers cry “All-Up,” then gently corral the birds between their boats so that they can be safely and swiftly counted.
“There will be many schools visiting Swan Upping once again this year as we continue to encourage the education of children about swan welfare, the river, the traditional boats we use and the impact of human activity on our wildlife,” says Barber.
Princess Anne has also joined the Swan Uppers on their traditional bird census. Unlike Hammond, however, she didn’t actively get her hands dirty — or in this case wet — and help corral the birds.