The inland gameshooting scene in the Republic of Ireland has been stable for many generations.
If you want to shoot, for an annual fee you join the parish gun club, which allows you access to all the local rough ground, farmland, woods, hedgerows and bogs where the club is permitted access.
All of the clubs come under the affiliation of the National Association of Regional Game Councils (NARGC), which presides in Dublin. Most shooting takes place on a Sunday, with a typical excursion involving two friends with dogs walking through likely spots in the hope of seeing a pheasant, snipe, woodcock or rabbit. They may fire five shots; they may fire none.
It is a very different situation to the set-up in Britain, where gameshooting tends to take place on private land and by invitation only. There are a handful of driven shoots in southern Ireland, but even compared with Northern Ireland it is the exception and not the rule. Some pheasant and partridge are released in the summer, but nothing like the numbers we see in the UK. If I were to make a comparison then the set-up is more similar to the wildfowling organisation on foreshore land, where the clubs’ members can shoot what passes their way. It seems the bag returns are often very similar, too!
As with the wildfowlers, however, modern developments in Ireland are encroaching on to land that was once deemed a birthright to shoot over. Shooting Times was invited to the parish of Rathcormac, near Fermoy, in County Cork, to cover the struggles of one such gun club. The chairman of the club, John Howard, who is also chairman of the Federation of County Cork Gun Clubs (FCCGC), wanted to raise awareness of the threats posed to shooting in Ireland and highlight his plans to arrest them.
We met at John’s fruit farm on the outskirts of Rathcormac, where he and his father at 82 years of age the oldest active member of the gun club were both raised. Several years ago, the farm’s fields would have been bursting with strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, you name it, but now many of the plantations have been re-seeded with grasses and wild flowers as part of a subsidised conservation incentive, along the lines of our Single Farm Payment Scheme. “Fresh fruit has gone the way of many crops, in that caterers and retailers can get it cheaper from Eastern European countries such as Poland,” explained John, whose business now specialises in buying in frozen fruit from these new members in the EU. He has even learned Romanian so he can chat with his business partners, as well as to a full-time employee who has moved from that country to Ireland, along with so many others, in the promise of better pay and opportunities. “The same has happened to the beet farmers, once a huge market in Ireland, and a favoured place for shooters, too.”
This diversification has allowed John to plant various seed mixes bought from the Salisbury-based merchant David Bright, and his fields now bloom with triticale, cornflower, linseed, mustard, buckwheat and the pretty blue phacelia flowers. “On a sunny day, the whole place will be alive with butterflies and insects, so it is a great place for gamebirds and songbirds alike. The club puts down 200 pheasants, while we are also going
to release 50 grey partridges to help bolster the species’ numbers. It is all small-scale, but we do what we can.” John is especially inspired by the type of farming and conservation undertaken by Prince Charles and is trying to achieve the same results with a very small budget.
On John’s little slice of paradise there are conservation headlands and beetlebanks, and he also excavated a small duck pond, a favoured spot for moorhen, where he will release the 10 duck he has raised in a nearby wood. “It’s a haven for mink, too, so we try catching them in live traps; an old fish head or simple curiosity seems to draw them in. Perhaps we’ve driven them away, as the moorhen chicks have survived so far this summer. We have to be careful with the duck, though. Last time we released them, the villagers started feeding them bread. Before we knew it they had taken over the town, holding up traffic on Rathcormac high street!”
The big build
Circumstance has allowed John to create a mini-wild shoot on his own patch, where he will be able to hunt with his spaniels and sons, but this is something that also agrees with his current strategy of safeguarding as much shooting as he can for the next generation. Like Fiver, the clairvoyant rabbit in Watership Down, John can hear the sound of the bulldozers approaching. “The economy in Ireland is booming at the moment, especially the housing market,” he said resignedly, letting out his two spaniels from their roomy run. They both charged round in circles in excitement, before coming to heel, sitting on their master’s feet. “Whether it will last, nobody knows, but many landowners are trying to make the most of it while they can. Throughout the area, bogs are being drained to build houses; areas that were almost worthless 10 years ago are now being bought and sold for huge prices. In the UK, you have many Sites of Special Scientific Interest, or Special Protection Areas designated by Europe, but in Ireland there are very few. Planning authorities are allowing developers to build almost entirely where they like in the name of progress, but to the detriment of many sensitive areas.”
Of course, the woodlands, wetlands and bogs dug up to plant houses were also areas for shooting. John is not overreacting or looking through rose-tinted glasses: when we visited him our journey took us from Dublin down the backbone of Ireland to just north of Cork, and there are signs of development on all sides. Most towns have a new housing estate with properties to sell and let in their outskirts, while few fields do not contain at least one square bungalow with bright white walls and large piles of sand or stone waiting to be removed. I’m no expert, but these garish dwellings seem to clash with the traditional image of Irish countryside. There are no tasteful barn conversions, which are prevalent in rural areas of the UK and France, but only these white bungalows, like a scene from a mid-west suburban horror movie.
To keep pace with this development roads are being dug and repaired, and we regularly crawled in second gear through roadworks. One of the most congested sections of the A8 road that runs between Dublin and Cork is in the town of Fermoy, just north of Rathcormac. The authorities recently opened a new toll road that allows motorists to bypass Rathcormac and Fermoy. The motorway was carved through some of the gun club’s favourite shooting ground.
“Don’t get us wrong, we don’t want to stand in the way of progress,” said John, as we took a tour of the countryside he has shot all his life, passing many a bungalow that had previously been a “good spot for a snipe” or “where I once shot a mallard”. “We would never blame a farmer for making money from a piece of land that was previously worthless to him. He can sometimes make as much as 20,000 Euros for an acre. He would never make that much money in 100 years by farming it. We have been na? in the past, however, which we cannot afford to be now. For example, we believed the motorway would affect only the land on either side of the road. Of course, it was more than that, because they needed to put the soil somewhere they used it to fill another bog that was a refuge for many rare plants and species; it was cheaper that way and the farmer was delighted to have a bog filled over with topsoil. So the club lost another large chunk of land.”
The increase in houses has also brought many newcomers to the area who do not agree with the status quo of allowing gun club members to shoot on their land. “There have been some folk who don’t want us there and, as ever, there are conflicts of interest. For example, one newcomer won’t allow us to walk along his bank of the river in case we shoot ‘his’ pheasants. How does he think they got there in the first place? So we cross over to the other side of the river for 50 yards, before crossing back.”
The Rathcormac club is not alone: many other organisations are losing territory, as they have little clout to fight back. John’s 21 members pay 140 Euros a year for the right to shoot over 10,000 acres. It is a higher sub than many other clubs, which may have only half a dozen members paying no more than 20 Euros each. The NARGC has a tacit agreement with Coillte, the Irish equivalent of the Forestry Commission, that woodland will be kept in reserve for gun clubs, but all other land is at the mercy of the bulldozer.
What to do?
We had reached a spinney in a large pasture field where John will often find a cock pheasant for the pot. His record for the season was 20 pheasants, a figure that some driven game Shots in the UK will manage in a morning. The spinney was a fairy fort, or rath, where leprechauns are thought to live. While farmers may not believe in fairies, very few will risk knocking them down, as it brings terrible luck. In the background, we could see the new motorway, like an angry scar through the countryside. “This fort was also an open-air church, where the locals would come to say mass or get married in secret, when the country was under Protestant English control,” said John. “It was an elevated site so that spies could see the redcoats coming.” Now it is inhabited by the orange-coated pheasants. “But there is nothing in Irish law to stop the farmer coming here with a bulldozer tomorrow and flattening the place if he wanted to.”
Instead of sitting on their hands and hoping it does not happen, however, John and his fellow club members have decided to take matters into their own hands. Rather than beat the property market they plan to join it, by buying a plot of choice shooting land that will be safe forever from the developers. The club is already looking around for other stretches of land to preserve as its own. John showed me round the plot of woodland and bog the club hopes to buy. With it being the middle of summer, the vegetation was thick on the ground, but it was still easy to see the attraction of the site to shooters. Alder and Sally (willow) grew alongside silver birch and blooms of furze. John adores butterflies and pointed out fritillaries and painted ladies that flock to resident wild plants, such as honeysuckle and vernal grass. The wood is a prime spot for a snipe or woodcock and the club hopes to dig another pond for mallard. There are also plans for a small pheasant release pen. “Even in this small area, we have an abundance of wildlife,” said John proudly.
“We have all the finches gold, green and bull and flycatchers, goldcrests, treecreepers, linnets, sisken, redpolls and yellowhammers. There are kestrels, sparrowhawks, merlins, barn owls, long-eared owls and red squirrels nearby. And even the odd pheasant! “Funding the fightback to buy the land, the club will need money and a great deal of the funds will come from a benefit evening at the Youghal greyhound track on Friday 28 September (see the article on page 48 for more details), as well as local contributions. “Everybody has been extremely helpful,” said John, “and we have not received a single word against us publicly. This is a great sporting area and most people are involved in a club, whether it is the Gaelic Association sports such as hurling or football, the coursing club or the various hunts. Everybody has shown great support. We hope they will all buy a ticket to the greyhound evening in September.”
John is disappointed that efforts to attract subsidy for buying land have been rejected, however. “There is no financial help from bodies in Ireland or Europe actually to acquire land,” he said. “Once you have it, there are all sorts of people willing to help, but only when you have bought the land yourself. “People might call John a visionary, a dreamer, a reactionary or even a fantasist, but he is determined that there will be some part of the parish saved from the bulldozer where he can enjoy his favourite pursuits: shooting, working his dogs and observing nature. “I recently bought my youngest son Colm a springer puppy for his tenth birthday,” he said, as we made our way back to Rathcormac. “It is really just an excuse for me to train a new dog, if I’m honest, but he is delighted. He’s very keen on the shooting, like his father, and I want him to have the same opportunities I had at his age. The worst-case scenario is that in 10 years’ time we are sitting here thinking, ‘I wish I had done something 10 years ago’. I fear that many other clubs in Ireland will have lost too much of their habitat by then.”
If you would like to make a contribution to the Rathcormac Habitat Appeal, the best way is to transfer a sum electronically to the Habitat Account, Rathcormac Game and Wildlife Club, account number 13135121; sort code 93-60-81, or write to PO Box 30, An Post, Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland.