The law governs our interactions with wildlife. It is a conservationist’s most powerful tool, aiding the protection of nearly all species and habitats. However, some pieces of legislation do not always reflect the ideas and attitudes towards wildlife we have nowadays. Unlike most countries in Europe, the UK and the USA have a common law system. This means that legislation was derived from the decisions and opinions of judges, on a case-by-case basis. If left unrevised environmental law from decades ago can become out-dated, leaving us baffled by the bizarre pieces of legislation that are still about (but rarely enacted) today. Here is a list of the top five strangest wildlife laws:
1) All beached whales are property of the monarch
A long time ago, if one were to find a beached whale, it was customary to offer it up to the reigning monarch. They would then decide what would be done with it. Needless to say there were very few cases where the King or Queen accepted this unusual gift. It is highly likely that the monarch had more pressing and sophisticated matters to attend to than a stranded cetacean. Although it is never enforced today, it is customary for most beached whale specimens to be donated London’s Natural History Museum.
“The King shall have throughout the realm, whales and great sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm, except in certain places privileged by the King.”
2) Banished bees from Kirkland, Illinois
In the 1940s the small town of Kirkland, Illinois proposed a ban on the presence of bees and beehives. The ordinance, created by the village board, aimed to keep bees at least 500 feet away from all residences and 200 feet away from all roads. How they were to enforce this was unclear. The regulation was soon questioned in a court case named ‘The village of Kirkland vs. Nellie Allen’. After being charged for having a beehive near her neighbour’s property, Nellie Allen’s attorney claimed the regulation lacked any logic, stating, “nature cannot be legislated against”.
3) Handling salmon in suspicious circumstances
The Salmon Act (1986) states that it is illegal to handle a salmon under any “suspicious circumstances”. Still present today, it is very much down to interpretation as to what situations would be regarded as suspicious. However if you are caught handling salmon in particularly shady circumstances, it could land you up to three months in prison or a hefty fine!
4) US gun laws allow blind individuals to hunt
It is well known that the USA’s second amendment allows all citizens the right to own and use a gun, including legally blind individuals. Although some states require proof of adequate vision before granting a gun licence, most states do not. Blind individuals in Texas and Michigan are allowed to hunt wild animals in the presence of a sighted person, although the practicalities of this are not very well known. Some say that excluding blind individuals from obtaining a gun permit is not a good practice of equality; however, it has proved to be potentially dangerous. In 2013 a blind man in New Jersey shot himself in the leg, leading to his guns being confiscated.
5) All swans belong to the Queen
A common “pub fact”, we have probably all heard this statement at one time or another. It turns out it’s true! Back in medieval times, the type of poultry you ate was an indicator of your wealth and status. Therefore only the noblest royal families would dine on the majestic mute swan. Common law was put in place to ensure all mute swans were the property of the royal household. The tradition of ‘swan upping’ involved the annual capture and branding of wild swans to mark them as royal assets. The tradition is still in place today, however the birds are ringed and recorded for conservation purposes rather than property rights.
Looking back on redundant laws allows us to see how attitudes have changed towards wildlife. Modern day legislation is far more concerned with the welfare, sustainability and conservation of wild habitats and species, as opposed to how they can be exploited for our gain, or kept at a distance. And sometimes, it can simply provide a good laugh.
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