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Some Species of Animals are Exclusively Owned by the British Crown

Ian Harvey
Photo by Getty images
Photo by Getty images

In the modern world being royal is a very different proposition than it used to be. Instead of being the absolute lord or lady of realm, many rulers have become more ceremonial figures in their kingdoms.

That’s certainly true of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Even so, it’s good to be the Queen, and the role can carry some very interesting perks, especially when the monarch is also an animal lover.

Queen Elizabeth II attends the wedding of Prince Harry to Ms. Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. Photo by Pool/Max Mumby/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II attends the wedding of Prince Harry to Ms. Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. Photo by Pool/Max Mumby/Getty Images

One of those perks is that the Queen owns, or at least co-owns, among other animals, a lot of swans. Since the 12th century the British Crown has had the rights of ownership over all the mute swans swimming in open waters through the country, according to the royal family’s website.

The right was legislated back when swan was a popular dish at feasts and at the monarch’s table. The Queen doesn’t hold those rights absolutely, though.

In the 14th century, ownership rights were granted to Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, and in the 15th century they were also extended to the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners, who were given the ownership rights over the mute swans on the Thames.

Swans in the main bay at Abbotsbury Swannery, Dorset. Photo by Mick Knapton CC BY-SA 3.0

Swans in the main bay at Abbotsbury Swannery, Dorset. Photo by Mick Knapton CC BY-SA 3.0

Outside of these groups, harming or killing a swan could carry a pretty stiff penalty, and even stealing a swan’s eggs would result in jail time for a year and a day.

Every year, the Crown still has an annual count of all the Queen’s swans on certain stretches of the Thames, in an event called swan upping. Since the birds aren’t eaten anymore and are a protected species, the event is geared toward conservation.

Swan Upping, Abingdon, 2011. Photo by Jun CC BY-SA 2.0

Swan Upping, Abingdon, 2011. Photo by Jun CC BY-SA 2.0

The census is headed by the Queen’s Swan Marker, and the teams doing the count head out up the Thames in row boats, looking for swans.

They examine all the swans and cygnets they find to check the birds’ health, and those swans belonging to the Vintners and Dyers are ringed with specific ID numbers.

Any swans not specifically owned by either group are left unmarked, and belong to Her Majesty.

Swan uppers toasting the Queen during 2011 Swan Upping, at Abingdon. Photo by Jun CC BY-SA 2.0

Swan uppers toasting the Queen during 2011 Swan Upping, at Abingdon. Photo by Jun CC BY-SA 2.0

That’s not the full extent of the monarch’s aquatic animal holdings, either. According to Time, Queen Elizabeth’s dominion reaches under the water, as well as over it.

Thanks to a law that dates from 1324, during the reign of Edward II, “Also the King shall have … whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere in the realm.”

The law was never repealed, so the Queen is also the technical ruler of all the “fishes royal” – dolphins, porpoises, whales, and sturgeon – that are within about three miles of the kingdom’s shores, as well as any that wash up on those shores.

Two dolphins

Two dolphins

These days, only sturgeon are still actively fished in British waters, and sales of the fish are conducted the usual way, although the person or body purchasing the sturgeon requests the honor of its being accepted by the Queen, as a gesture of loyalty.

Her Majesty’s animal ownership doesn’t just extend to the wild ones and her corgis, either. According to Travel and Leisure, the Queen’s fondness for animals extends to a colony of bats which inhabit Balmoral Castle.

Balmoral Castle. The Royal Standard of Scotland flies over it. Photo by Stuart Yeates from Oxford, UK -CC BY-SA 2.0

Balmoral Castle. The Royal Standard of Scotland flies over it. Photo by Stuart Yeates from Oxford, UK -CC BY-SA 2.0

Balmoral is a castle in Scotland, which has long been a preferred site for royal vacationing. The colony of bats inhabits the main hall. She insists that the staff leave them unmolested, “despite the extra cleaning work that they generate,” and has been known to catch them with a special butterfly net to take them outside herself.

Finally, she has also been personally gifted with some pretty exotic animals, according to cheatsheet.com. In 1972 the President of Cameroon gave her an African forest elephant named Jumbo, and, in the ‘60s, she was given a pair of pygmy hippos from the Liberian President.

Read another story from us: The Most Intriguing Special Privileges of Queen Elizabeth II

Other exotic animals she’s received include six kangaroos, a pair of giant tortoises, giant anteaters, two black jaguars, a number of crocodiles, and a pair of sloths. She has, historically, donated all such gifts to London Zoo.