Saturday, July 25, 2009

Swan upping

In Her Majesty's Service, Loyal Minion Courts the Queen's Swans on Thames

Mr. Barber has a job that some see as a royal anachronism. He is the queen's swan marker, an official title he has held for 16 years, and his duty is to conduct an annual census of the river's newborn cygnets in service to the crown.

The five-day exercise, known as swan upping, dates back to the medieval era, when a royal edict deemed all the unmarked mute swans in the U.K. property of the monarchy. Today, Queen Elizabeth II maintains the right to claim all the country's mute swans, but she exercises her prerogative only on the Thames, where Mr. Barber monitors the birds alongside the queen's swan warden, Oxford zoology professor Christopher Perrins.

For the first time in her 57-year reign, the queen tended to her flock in person this year, appearing at the Monday launch of this year's swan upping. Mr. Barber rose at 5 that morning and nervously issued directions on the dock.

But at a time when the crown finds itself under fire for spending, curious royal pursuits like swan upping risk ruffling the feathers of British taxpayers. The monarchy cost the British public £41.5 million ($68.5 million) in the past financial year -- and the queen is expected to ask Parliament for a raise. According to annual reports, the royal family spends about £1.7 million each year on ceremonial functions such as swan upping, but the monarchy doesn't publicly itemize expenses.

It isn't Mr. Barber's job that disturbs some Britons, but rather what it and other royal ceremonies like it have come to obscure.

"Swan upping is harmless in itself, but it masks a wider anachronism which is unhealthy and unfair," says Norman Baker, a Liberal-Democrat member of Parliament. Such traditions, he says, make the monarchy seem like a charming and inescapable part of British life, even as the royal family uses millions in taxpayer money without offering detailed disclosure records and travels around the world on the public dime.

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