Killing a swan was once considered an act of treason and still today you can end up with a large fine, even a prison sentence. I didn’t know that when I was 14 and didn’t know that summer day in the school holidays that I would be killing a swan.

A family of swans show that KILLING A SWAN is illegal.

There were four of us on our bikes with fishing tackle in canvas bags, keep nets, tins of worms and fishing rods strapped to the crossbar. We raced each other along the banks of the River Lea, the river that runs out of the Chiltern Hills through Hertfordshire before meeting the Thames at Bow. We dropped our bikes in a pile, attached the holding nets to the soft earth bank and cast our lines.

The fish filled the river, tightly packed, and pulling them out of the flow was as easy as picking apples from a tree. It was so effortless that, boys being more concerned in the contest than the activity, one of my friends devised a method to make the pursuit more engaging. We affixed to our rods two lines and two hooks, then three, then four. We were now able with care and luck to pull out four wriggling silver fish at once.

The sun browned our arms and glinted like swirling blades on the surface of the river. We were living in the present of an endless day from a childhood summer belonging as much to imagination as memory. Even the fish, as if by osmosis, were in collusion with our youthful needs. Our keep nets were growing full – what we intended to do with so many fish had not yet occurred to us.

Eternity and Me

We had just reached the stage when we were yanking them out four at a time when a family of swans appeared around the bend upstream, a large male, a female and seven cygnets in a flotilla that moved in file as if connected by hidden wires. We had layered our stretch of the river with ground bait and, with the fish responding so obligingly, the last thing we wanted was this unforeseen intrusion.

We tossed small stones to drive the swans back upstream. But they were fearless creatures that would take bread from your palm and looked back with disdain in their coal black eyes. They refused to acknowledge our threats and, staying on course, were about to pass our private spot. We clapped our hands and beat the water with our rods making seismic waves on the surface. I bent and, without searching, my fingers found the perfect stone: plump, oval, flat-sided, heavy without being too heavy, a stone with some tenuous connection to me and eternity.

Killing A Swan Tableau

Though I merely threw the stone at the moving tableau, not a particular swan, like a Zen archer’s arrow, I knew as the missile left my hand that it would find its target. The stone hit one of the cygnets and broke its neck. The swans continued their approach as if there were a vindictive and unbreakable bond between them and me. Finally, the mother swan turned. She steered her dead offspring with lowered beak and guided the flotilla back upstream. The male followed.

The Queen with a cygnet illustrates why killing a swan is illegal.

The Queen with the Royal Swan Keeper.

My friends were quiet at first. Then they began shouting, waving their fists as if they, too, were connected by strings, the ties of the herd – the shoal. You murderer. You killer. You termite. Killing a swan is illegal. All the swans belong to the Queen.

I left my fishing tackle on the river bank, extricated my bike from the tangle and cycled home alone. I had never liked fishing that much and killing a swan, a cygnet in fact, even worse, had a long lasting effect on me. My family had only recently moved to the countryside where boys hunted and fished. I would never pursue these sports. I learned to smoke and spent the rest of the summer in the company of Orwell, Camus and Kafka.

Killing a Swan Upset the Queen

The boys were mostly right. Technically, the Crown doesn’t own the swans but with a right of claim passed down through the centuries the monarch is the de facto custodian. Unlike chickens, geese and ducks, swans cannot be fully domesticated. This means only those who own a lake or a moat can keep the royal fowl. The quid pro quo is that only those who own them can eat them.

Killing a swan in the 13th century could land a man in the Tower of London. In the 15th century, wealthy people attained the right to buy, sell and eat swans by purchasing a ‘swan mark’ from the Crown. The impression on a swan’s beak as proof of ownership is one of the oldest such property marks in England.

The swan as a heraldic emblem was first employed by Godfrey of Bouillon, the King of Jerusalem and hero of the First Crusade who died in 1100. Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin borrows from the legend and tells of a mysterious knight who arrives in a boat drawn by a swan to help a noblewoman in distress. He marries her but forbids her to ask his origin. She later forgets her promise and he leaves her, never to return.

I smoked for the next 25 years – Gauloises as an existentialist teen. I stubbed out the last one aged 39 but continue to dip into Orwell, Camus and Kafka. I still haven’t forgotten the little cygnet with the broken neck. 

Read George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War.


Posted in Blog.


  1. Stunning honesty. Memory as both the source and cure of pain. Lessons learned. The early detail has an almost Le Carré quality to it, setting the scene in the reader’s eye while never failing to push the main sail of the story forward. Bravo. That this lingers for you still today says much to the credit of a sensitive soul. Side note: I also quit cigarettes at 39. For me, they were Dunhill Reds. With only five minutes on the clock to the midnight that would bring my 40th birthday, disgusted at myself for huffing and puffing up stairs at that still young age, I resolved – successfully – not to smoke a cigarette in my 40s. That pledge gets renewed and updated with each coming decade. A wonderful tale, in which that little cygnet has renewed life, its memory moving us today.

  2. I still remember running over a frog on a moped. The squeal still rings in my ears till this day. Maybe a lesser creature but still a sentient creature and I killed it.

  3. Clifford, many of us have a childhood deep embarrassment or worse memory.
    I know how it feels.. Impulsive actions. I unfortunately know from experience too.
    Courageous telling here.

  4. Thank you for sharing a personal memory, which should resound with every person who possesses a conscience. Like you, I too came to regret my senseless killing of animals struggling to survive in our world. Yet from out of these regrets, I learned, and the remorse, which haunts me still, teaches me to value and protect the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. Which for me, is an important evolutionary step in my development as a human being. … I am also proud I quit smoking tobacco some 40 years ago. Though now, I do possess a legal medical cannabis license, which helps me to calm the rage of all my regrets.

  5. I loved this account. We do some stupid things as youngsters, however you know better now. I, too, feel bad about taking the life of any animal and am sorry to say that I did not possess this sensitivity when younger. We live and learn.

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