A villainous pair of swans have been tormenting the good citizens of Brimscombe, a tiny village in the Cotswolds, with such viciousness that it's become national news. According to Metro UK, the two swans have vandalized property, harassed vehicles on public thoroughfares, and even attacked children.
Local residents, Metro reports, have been forced to go about armed with water pistols because the authorities refuse to step in. Swans, local officials inform the fearful residents, are "protected animals."
Protected indeed: Swans are able to act with impunity because they enjoy official royal protection. Really. It's an odd and particularly British law that goes back centuries, and whose perpetuation, beyond giving us highly amusing stories about desperate Brits fending off swans with squirt guns, hints at some deeper issues as well.
Why British swans are under actual royal protection
Swan have enjoyed the protection of the British crown for hundreds of years. Since the 12th century, the British monarchy has claimed ownership of all mute wild swans within its territory. Originally, this was meant to enforce the crown's exclusive access to the swans because they were considered a delicacy, but over the years the protection remained even as culinary tastes changed. Killing a swan was a crime against the crown and thus considered treason.
That law was finally changed in 1998, so now harming a swan is merely an ordinary crime. But swans remain the queen's property, and laws protecting them are strenuously enforced.
The national police website warns that people who have harmed swans have been prosecuted in recent years for theft and criminal damage. And media reports suggest that's not an idle warning: In 2011, for instance, a Manchester man was prosecuted for accidentally killing two swans while water-skiing. The Daily Mail reports that the 34-year-old father of two admitted causing "criminal damage" to the queen's property. And in September 2015, a courier was fined and made to personally apologize to the queen after hitting a swan with his delivery truck.
One result of all this, aside from darkly humorous police blotter stories where people apologize to the queen for water-skiing over swans, is that communities such as Brinscombe have little recourse when swans start encroaching. Yes, they're just big dumb birds, but they have done serious damage to people and property.
According to Metro, the birds in Brinscombe have grown increasingly aggressive in recent years. They have torn up lawns, harassed cyclists, chased the postman daily, and even attacked young children. "I’m scared to leave the house at times," 53-year-old Angela Helbrow, who lives next to the river where the swans hang out, told Metro. "I can’t even go outside to hang up the washing anymore.
"I was doing my knitting last week and they came right up from the river to the patio doors and began pecking on the window."
The UK's odd swan laws mean that it's the birds, perversely, who are protected here, and locals can do little more than try to avoid the swans or gently repel them, effectively ceding their own yards to the feathered interlopers.
Brinscombe is not alone: Swans' royal patrons make the birds' impunity something of a fact of life for Brits. My husband, for example, sometimes jokes about the swans who would descend on him when he kayaked, as a small child, on a local river. In most countries, parents might tell their child to swat at any approaching swans with a paddle. But instead, he was warned that Britain's strictly enforced swan protection laws meant he could only engage in passive resistance. He eventually learned that his best option was to crawl inside the kayak and wait there until the swans grew bored of tormenting him.
It's a funny story to tell, but it's also the same peculiar privileging of swans over people that has got Brinscombe so upset, and that has made their similarly humorous and bizarre plight something of a national story.
There's something deeper going on with this whole swan thing
It seems reasonable, then, to wonder why this system persists. Swans no longer seem to be a staple of the royal table. And even if they were, surely there would be a natural synergy between providing poultry for Buckingham palace and culling vicious birds who terrorize the populace?
Why, in other words, are British citizens allowing this ancient tradition to persist, even when it is pecking at their children and chasing the postman?
There may be no way to answer that question with any degree of certainty. But it's worth noting that this isn't the first time British society has been willing to accept a little modern menace in order to preserve the charming vestiges of its longstanding traditions.
The country values its history, even when it seems incompatible with its present-day values, and when preserving it comes at a real cost. And that tension seems particularly clear when it comes to issues related to traditional British class hierarchies, whether it's the national obsession with non-working royals or the protection of beautiful but annoying fowl menacing the Cotswolds.
Regulation to preserve traditional architecture and the bucolic countryside, for instance, means that new construction is often prohibitively expensive or even impossible. The result is that property prices have skyrocketed, putting home ownership increasingly out of reach for ordinary people.
You can see this dynamic play out, if more subtly, in more significant aspects of British life as well. Consider, for example, the failed campaign to reform the House of Lords, which is the upper house of the UK Parliament and, like the swans, another relic of the old aristocracy.
Until fairly recently, all hereditary peers (meaning, basically, aristocrats who inherited their titles) were entitled to join the House of Lords. It's a relatively weak body, but this system nonetheless disadvantages groups that rarely or never inherit peerages, such as women, immigrants, and members of the middle and working classes. So you might expect people to hate it. But when the Labour government sought to reform the House of Lords in the late 1990s, it got so much pushback that it had to compromise and agree to more limited reforms. Today, 92 of the aristocrats still hold their seats.
So perhaps the same impulse explains the surprising public tolerance for the queen and her vicious swans. In one sense, the royal family is traditional and ornamental, the sort of charming cultural artifact that artists love to paint and tourists love to visit. But her majesty is still an unelected monarch sitting atop a modern democracy. If the British public is willing to accept that, then we probably shouldn't be surprised that they'll accept a few swan bites as well.