Immigrants are often viewed with suspicion by established communities - who fear the dilution of their lifestyle and culture. But is it really true that Eastern European migrants are eating the nation's swans?
The common folk belief that "all swans belong to the Queen" is perhaps behind the emotive response to the belief that recent immigrants to the UK catch and eat swans as a source of food.
Fear about the habits immigrants bring with them to the country are nothing new. Wherever there is conspicuous difference between sections of society can be a fertile breeding ground for suspicions. An obvious example is the still-current leitmotif of the alleged use of cats, dogs and rats by Chinese takeaways. A moment's thought would suggest to all but the most prejudiced that on no grounds would this make sense on economic grounds alone, yet still is swirls in the public imagination - most recently appearing in stories around the alleged 'Ipswich cat killer' (which some people explicitly blamed on unscrupulous takeaway owners).
With current fears circulating in particular around the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, it is little wonder that it is they who bear the brunt of suspicion - with elected officials, charity spokesmen and the media alike prepared to accuse Eastern Europeans (Poles in particular) of killing and eating swans.
In 2010, the Daily Mail quoted Marion Todd - ex-mayor of Peterborough - as saying:
'I've absolutely no doubt that these swans are being killed for food. We cleared one overgrown area where camps have been built - and found lots of swan carcasses. Put it this way: the swans did not disappear and their bones were not found on fires before the immigrants came.'
We note that any large human encampment on a riverbank might be sufficient to drive swans - or indeed any wildfowl - away from an area without necessitating them to have been eaten. Also unsaid is whether the bones were actually verified to have come from swans by a laboratory or suitable ornithological expert. After all, bones from one animal are easily mistaken for the bones of another to the non-expert.
The Polish Ambassador was moved to pointedly note that the claims may have a root in real, but isolated cases and shouldn't be used as an excuse to blacken the name of all eastern European immigrants:
'How many Polish people are involved?' he said. 'Four or five. A minority. If somebody has broken the law by behaving in this bestial way, I'm sure they will be punished according to the British law. I've heard of four or five people being arrested. It creates the wrong picture to say that hordes of Polish people are taking British wildlife.'
The Sun was widely condemned for running a similar story as far back as 2003, but actual evidence for the practice is poorly documented, if it exists at all. Photographs of white feathers and possible bits of swan (white wings etc) have been taken in the vicinity of immigrant encampments to accompany such stories, but again it is difficult to say whether these were in fact bits of swan (and not, say, gulls) and whether it was human or animal depradation to blame.
The Sun photographed a fisherman squatting by a carcass alleged to have been eaten by immigrants in 2008. Sceptical readers might note that the carcass is lying next to the wings and clearly hasn't been butchered (the head and neck remaining attached). Furthermore, the presence of feathers suggests that it certainly wasn't cooked either.
Perhaps credulous readers of such reports would also believe that the immigrants eat the swans alive or raw at the very least. Even such an August body as the RSPB seems happy to take the reports at face value, a moderator telling visitors to their web forums that "Unfortunately, this seems to be an increasing problem across the UK."
Lurking unsaid at the back of this belief/horror story is the fact that swans were once eaten as delicacy by natives of these isles. An Elizabethan recipe for swan reads thus:
To bake a Swan
Scald it and take out the bones, and parboil it, then season it very well with Pepper, Salt and Ginger, then lard it, and put it in a deep Coffin of Rye Paste with store of Butter, close it and bake it very well, and when it is baked, fill up the Vent-hole with melted Butter, and so keep it; serve it in as you do the Beef-Pie
So are immigrants really eating the Queen's swans? The closest verifiable claim we can find was the case of Shamshu Miah - a muslim living in Llandudno - who was convicted of killing a swan in 2006 and sentenced to two months in prison. The judge, seemingly channelling folk belief said during his summation:
"You killed the swan at night. It was a cruel and reprehensible act. I don't know exactly how the animal died. There seems to be speculation you may have bitten it... it's a taboo act and the only sentence that is appropriate is imprisonment."
The defendent's claim that he killed out of hunger on the second day of fasting for Ramadan evidently failed to shake the judge's conviction that Miah's actions were close to treasonable - and the mere suggestion that there "seems" to have been "speculation" that Miah had bitten the bird was worthy of the stocks.
As it was, the amount of time he'd spent in custody leading up to the trial meant that he never went to prison. Presumably, the tabloids deplore this leniency.
Sir Peter Maxwell
Another person who had a brush with the law thanks to their taste for swan meat was no less than Sir Peter Maxwell - the master of the Queen's music. In 2005, police entered his home to investigate him for possession of a swan for eating. The eminent musician told police that the bird had flown into a power line and he had recovered it corpse with the intention of making a 'nice terrine.'
Lincoln, January 2013
Despite the relative paucity of direct evidence, the story is compelling enough to reach across the waters of the Atlantic, where no less an organ than Time magazine felt confident enough to tell it's readers in January 2013 that "someone is kidnapping and eating Britain's swans." How seriously the article was researched may be judged by the appearance of the old canard about the monarch owning all of the country's swans.
During the same 'spate of attacks. the Telegraph quoted Charlotte Childs, of the RSPCA's Lincolnshire Mid and Lincoln division as saying that the charity had heard reports of swans being lured into people's houses. Shortly afterwards, residents of Lincoln were moved to form a Facebook group to monitor the city's swan population and to make sure that no harm befell them. As there seem to have been no recent reports, it could be that this initiative managed to scare off any would-be gourmands.
In August 2013, an apparently burnt swan carcass was found in Windsor. While slightly different to other alleged instances of swan killing it remains sufficiently interesting to merit further discussion. Check out our news report for our take on this case.