Life

Does the Queen really own all the swans?

Swans get royal protection but they're not the only wildlife claimed by Her Majesty.

the queen and swans

The Crown's ownership of the animals is led by the Keeper of the Swans (really). Image: Sue Thompson

It must be a right laugh being the Queen. With seven official residencies, there’s plenty of space to run around in.

A lot of banisters to slide down. Chandeliers to swing from. She doesn’t need a driving licence.
She doesn’t require a passport. She doesn’t pay taxes. She gets two birthdays. And she owns all
the swans, which just seems a bit greedy, really.  

Historically, this was because swans are tasty, allegedly (the practice of eating them fell out of favour during Victorian times, though a man from Kent was fined £210 for scoffing one in 2014). Long before wearing a Rolex was an indicator of wealth, if you wanted to show your status then serving swan at your feast was the way to go. Forty swans were ordered for Henry III’s Christmas celebrations in 1247 at Winchester, and by 1482 the crown had ring-fenced the birds, stating that only landowners of a certain income could keep them.  

Those owned by gentry had symbols – ‘swan marks’ – etched into their beaks. The rest were the crown’s to do with as they pleased. We like to think that Britain’s royal family dress them up like knights of old and give them little sticks to joust with (it should be made clear this is pure speculation).  

It’s been a long time since you’ll have seen a British monarch wiping away bloody white feathers from their lips, and these days the crown’s ownership of swans is solely about conservation. Led by the Keeper of the Swans (an official title) and their Swan Squad (we made it up but we’re happy for it to be used officially), every year each swan along the Thames is caught, counted, ringed and set free again. This sounds like a right clart on for everyone concerned, especially the swan – but everybody needs a hobby, right?  

Ancient laws mean that the Queen’s powers extend beyond land too, with a rule dating back to the reign of Edward II meaning that the crown owns all the sturgeons, whales and dolphins in UK waters. Known as ‘royal fish’, if you catch one within three miles of UK shore you have to get the Queen’s approval to keep it. The name for the person who handles these transactions is the awesomely titled Receiver of Wreck. They are, as the name suggests, responsible for dealing with shipwrecks too. 

Thankfully given the veritable menagerie assembled here, the Queen is a vocal animal lover. Since she and sister Margaret were given their first Pembroke Welsh corgi – Dookie, which her father, King George VI probably didn’t know was American slang for poo – she’s amassed 30 of the things over the course of her life. Obviously, she breeds and rides horses. And in 1957, the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society gave her a cow called Beauchamp Oxford Lady, which is a rubbish name for
a cow – and a rubbish gift in light of the other animals she’s received over the years. 

These include two pygmy hippopotami, two giant tortoises, two American beavers, an Arctic fox, two giant anteaters, several toucans, a giant armadillo, six kangaroos, a Linne’s two-toed sloth, several crocodiles and two black jaguars. In 1963 she was gifted a pig from the people of Fiji. Is that it, Fiji? Is that the best you can do? Reportedly she didn’t bring the pig home, and who can blame her? Incidentally, second son Prince Andrew was born three years previous, in 1960. 

It’s not a perfect life being the Queen, mind. One ex-palace chef gone rogue revealed that shellfish, garlic and tap water are banned from the royal kitchens. But swan? Knock yourself out ma’am. 

James McMahon is a freelance writer  

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