The Queen’s Swans

“You can’t eat a swan, because they belong to the Queen” – Statement of fact or common misconception?

There are a great many things that can be said about the swan. It is considered to be one of the most elegant and regal of birds, much beloved by writers of novels, plays and operas. It’s also a bit feisty and not a creature you would want to piss off too much.

Of the many things said and written about them, one of the most frequently repeated and little questioned facts is that ‘the Queen owns all of the swans in England’, is that strictly true though?

In a word, NO.

But… queen – swans – queen, surely?

The reality is that whilst the Queen does own (or control) some swans, the majority are free birds, and there are a couple of others who also have ownership rights.

Over the course of a week every July, the Swan Upping ceremony takes place on the river Thames. This nine hundred year old ritual is essentially a head count of all the mute swans on the river and its tributaries. The swans are then marked for ownership by the Vintners’ or Dyers’ Livery Companies. These companies were granted their swan ownership rights by the Crown in the fifteenth century. Traditionally the birds were marked by having either one or two nicks cut into their beaks, but in more modern times they have moved on to the far less invasive application of leg rings.

Technically any unmarked swans in open water then belong to the Crown, but the reality is that the Queen only exercises her ownership rights on certain stretches of the Thames and certain tributaries.

The most important thing to note here is that this only covers Mute Swans. Other species, like Berwick’s or Whooper Swans are not included.

The only other owners of swans in the UK are the family of the Earl of Ilchester, who own Abbotsbury Swannery, the world’s only managed colony of wild swans.

Of course at various points in time, wannabe swan hunters have taken it upon themselves to challenge the Crowns ownership of the regal white birds. Generally courts have always sided with the monarch, with one notable exception. In 1910 a lawyer from the Orkney Islands won his case after shooting a swan, based on some old Norse Udal law, which still applies in the Orkney Isles, and under which the swans there belong to the people.

What most people seem to miss completely, what with all of the fuss over the swans, is that the Crown does technically have a right to all of the ‘Fishes Royal’, including sturgeon, porpoises, whales and dolphins, in the waters around the UK. This dates from 1324 statute which still remains valid today.

Back to the birds, basically only members of the Royal family are allowed to eat unmarked mute swans living in open water, except for the fellows of St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, who are allowed to take their pick as a special favour due to some ancient royalist ties.

And yet we don’t eat them…

Given that we aren’t likely to be tried for treason if we eat a swan, the more pertinent reason not to stick one in the oven is that…

whether they happen to be property of the queen or not, all wild swans are protected by UK law, most famously under the, wonderfully named, Wild Creatures and Forest Law Act 1971, and more recently under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is illegal to hunt or harass wild swans or their eggs. This essentially means that they cannot be domesticated and farmed legally (because clipping their wings would be illegal), unless the original birds were imported from another country.

We are being very UK specific, and there are plenty of other places where you can both hunt and eat a swan of various species. Hunting of swans is legal in the USA with an appropriate license, and you can also purchase them either dead or alive, but they don’t come cheap. The lowest price I managed to find was about $600 per bird, with the average price being closer to $1000.

Of course if we are looking for more reasons not to eat swan then we could always turn to the bible; Leviticus apparently (I haven’t read it) expressly forbids the eating of ‘swans or other unclean fouls and birds of prey’.

Then there are well known historical myths, Celtic and others, about swans being able to shapeshift into humans – could this have also contributed to the reasons that we don’t eat them?

The most likely answer is probably that all of the above reasons together have been combined in our consciousness and given rise to the thought that swan is just not food. This is very similar to the way that very few people in the UK would consider eating horse, even though it is a perfectly good and low fat meat, that is widely eaten elsewhere in the world.

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