DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, the queen of England has many ancient royal titles. Among other things, she is lord of the swans. Going back to the 12th century, virtually all of England's native wild swans have been the property of the monarch. Many in Britain cherish them. But as Vicki Barker reports, all is not well among her majesty's swans.
VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: It may not have the dazzle of a royal wedding, but the annual Swan Upping is one of the oldest events in the British royal calendar. Every English summer, men in red blazers and white trousers spend a week rowing up the River Thames, literally lifting the swans and counting them as locals and tourists look on. David Barber is the queen's swan marker.
DAVID BARBER: Each family of swans are taken out from the river. They are weighed, measured, and they are checked over.
BARKER: Although populations have recovered since the 1980s, when pollution and other pressures nearly killed them off, this year's Swan Upping returned some doleful news. Swans are increasingly the victims of human negligence and even cruelty.
DOROTHY BEESON: This is the actual hospital. It's more on the rustic side, but it's built to cater to swans.
BARKER: And this is where the victims are brought, the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton on the banks of the Thames. Founder Dorothy Beeson has been helping swans for 35 years.
BEESON: That one's had a wing off, and the rest of them in here, I do believe, are throat ops.
BARKER: The commonest injury - throat lacerations. Beeson points out one swan that swallowed the baited hook of a fisherman too busy contemplating his beer can to watch his rod and reel.
BEESON: This one here had a seven inch tear which is like the inside of its throat being cut with a razor blade.
BARKER: But it gets worse.
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HALLAM: This is the carcass of a swan that we found. As you can see, the carcass has been stripped.
BARKER: The Mansfield Chad newspaper in central England posted this video of a dead swan found at a local reservoir - a swan that had been butchered for its meat.
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HALLAM: You can actually see the cook marks on the feathers.
BARKER: Locals say dozens of resident swans have vanished in the past couple of years, apparently bound for someone's dinner table, breaking one of Britain's most powerful taboos. Since Tudor times, only British monarchs and some venerable institutions granted royal assent have had the right to eat swans. For anyone else, killing a swan, eating a swan, means a big fine or imprisonment.
GRAHAME MADGE: We are seeing a worrying increase in the number of these birds which are being taken for food.
BARKER: Grahame Madge is with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Although these and other acts of cruelty form only a tiny minority of the British public's interactions with swans, he says, the trend is disturbing.
MADGE: In the U.K., a lot of people love the birds. Many people cherish the site of a swan as being something very special. But sadly, it seems that with their rise in number, we're actually seeing an increase in the number of these incidents.
BARKER: Back at the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, swans healthy enough to leave the hospital ward but too damaged to ever again survive in the wild are fed at a manmade lagoon.
BEESON: Hello, babies.
BARKER: A floating barrier cuts them off from the river and from a world that brings new threats as old customs and beliefs die off. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Teddington, England.
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