So when a colleague mentioned that someone could catch and eat the bird to the left, and another averred that it was the Queens so they couldn’t, I had to correct the laymen and inform them that the Queen only owns the Mute Swans and this was a Whooper Swan so as she didn’t own it, they could eat it without offending any royal sensibilities but on the flipside they might be in contravention of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Of 1981. That was pretty much the conversation over. However, when accidentally flicking through a supplement of the Telegraph on Sunday I read that the Queen owns 88 Swans. Considering that I thought she owned every Mute Swan in the country, eighty eight birds doesn’t sound like much of a population. For my own edification I decided to find out a bit more.
When I said that the Monarch did own all the birds in the past, I’m not talking about the last couple of hundred years. The crown initially laid rule over the birds in 1482 with the advent of the ‘swan laws’ which was mainly in the business of stopping the common man getting hold of a lovely bit of swan for his tea, as this was the preserve of the wealthy who liked to eat swan and used a little legislation to keep it that way. Which they did very well for a while, assisted by a punitive system that was typically excessive (a year in gaol for a single stolen egg for example).
Over the centuries the want for swan on the dinner table subsided, helped to a certain extent by the relative cheapness of the recently introduced turkey. As this want subsided, so did the application of the law and those that felt the need to enforce their right to own swans and also the want of the common man to have swan on his table. Time moved on, and the history and application of the swan laws passed into history and anecdote.
Today, the claim of the crown over the nations swans has shrunk to such an extent that the Queen only claims as her own a few birds on one stretch of the Thames. Not the estuary end, nor the built up middle bit with the nasty steel walls, just the nice green bit in Surrey really. This could be referred to as the posh bit. It is here that the Queen's Swan Marker continues the tradition of Swan Upping, essentially counting the swans and ringing them once a year. And it is here that the figure of eighty-eight comes from. Next time I correct the layman, I shall do so with a greater degree of accuracy and thus satisfaction.
This years schedule can be found here... http://www.royalswan.co.uk/
And if I've loaded it correctly there should be an interesting pdf to view below this writing.