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Swans, specifically the mute swan (Cygnus Olor), have long been a prominent presence on the Norfolk Broads, coexisting with the ruins of water mills that dot the mystical wetlands. Despite their beauty and elegance, these birds exhibit fierce defensiveness when it comes to protecting their young, making them appear aggressive. It's not uncommon for observers to mistake mating behaviours for aggressive encounters, as both involve intense picking and parental vigilance.
Contrary to a common misconception that swans are untouchable and can only be consumed by the Queen of England, historical records reveal a different story. Until the 19th century, humans did, in fact, consume swans. In Norwich, an old swamp persisted for the sole purpose of breeding swans for slaughter, ensuring that the commoners didn't deplete the swan population. To safeguard this privilege for the wealthy and ruling classes, a 1482 crown order stipulated that only high-income landowners could keep swans.
A system of marking the beaks of swans was established to identify those authorised for consumption by the wealthy. This intricate system of beak markings became a symbol of privilege and was limited to the monarch, wealthy landowners, nobility, universities, and cathedrals. Unmarked swans were considered property of the crown, preventing peasants and commoners from killing or eating them. Interacting with swans without the proper authorization, such as attempting to counterfeit beak markings or stealing eggs, carried severe penalties, including imprisonment.
This exclusive policy persisted until 1998 when eating swans in the United Kingdom was no longer deemed treasonous. Mute swans are now protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, making it illegal to harm or keep them without proper authorization. Authorities believe that mute swans are likely native to England, with archaeological evidence indicating their presence dating back to the late glacial period around ten thousand years ago.
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