The Queen of England 'technically' owns all of the country's unmarked mute swans found on open waters (such an unnecessary flex). What's a mute swan? They're the ones with orange beaks and arched necks - the same swan you see in every British period drama.
Why does she own them? Because back in the day, swans were super popular. They were the height of sophistication, especially if you had one on your dinner table. As a result, only the royal family, the super wealthy, and two trade guilds, Vintners and Dyers, were allowed to own them. To denote ownership, little cuts were made on the birds' beaks. Each owner had their own pattern, except the Queen, who owned the 'unmarked' ones. In the 16th century, defacing or altering these marks - let alone killing a swan - would have landed you in prison.
Over the years, swans became less popular and the rules were relaxed. Today, Vintners and Dyers still own swans, but they use rings instead of cuts. The Crown still technically owns all unmarked swans on open waters, but this rule is only enforced on a small section of the river Thames. So… she basically owns the ones in her backyard.
It’s still illegal to kill or eat a swan today, but for different reasons - they're now a protected species under The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. The annual, five-day ‘swan upping’ event, led by the Queen’s Swan Marker, highlights how times have changed. Traditionally, the swan upping was a way to claim all the unmarked birds for the Queen to gobble up, but today the team counts the cygnets and checks them for injuries.
Image by HP Koch