Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Swan Terrine, Viking Law, and Conflicts of Interest

In one of the more amusing and unusual stories heard on the radio recently, it seems that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Master of the Queen's Music, may be facing charges for eating swan meat. The facts of the case are not in dispute. A wild swan flew into power lines near Sir Peter's Orckney Island home and was electrocuted. Sir Peter reported the finding to the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, and was advised merely to dispose of the carcass. His chosen method of disposal included making a terrine of the breast and leg meat. What is complicated is the law. Under a 12th century English law, all swans in the realm are property of the Queen, and no one else is allowed the delicacy. However, precedent holds that the law does not apply on the island of Orckney, where an even older Norse Viking law makes swans the property of the people. Under the more modern 1981 Wildlife and Conservation Act, it is clearly illegal to take a swan that you have killed, but it seems that one could take a swan that was already dead when you found it. The law makes cautious allowances for unintentional acts. For example, if you were driving along and accidentally struck a pheasant with your car and killed it, it would be illegal for you to take it. However, it would be legal for the car behind you to take it. (If only the scientists at our NIH were quite so attuned to conflicts of interest.) The local police are apparently taking the matter quite seriously, unlike Sir Peter, who is musing about whether his royal position will require he be sent to the Tower of London for the crime, and wondering what sort of music a prison experience might inspire. Me, I'm curious what the meat tastes like. It's said to be dark and rich, and has been compared to pheasant, venison, and even fish. (I've tried whale meat, but I've never tried swan.)

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