The Poacher by Frédéric Rouge (1867–1950)

Now Folks: l am not going to write about poaching eggs; poaching fish in wine; or poaching of land by over-trampling by livestock.

I am going to write about poaching fish, game or animals. In years gone by poaching arose as a consequence of the affluence of the rich landowners. For them by Norman times hunting had ceased to have been essential for survival and has become a sport.

They decreed that the wildlife on their land was theirs to the preclusion of the peasant classes. However, an empty stomach and an empty purse have a way of compelling a man to fill them. The harsh penalties were disregarded and poaching became a way of life for many of our ancestors.

The proficient poacher was both hunter and hunted and lived by his wits. He read the woods and fields in which he walked almost as we might read a book and failure to do so could mean not only the escape of his intended quarry but also his capture by gamekeeper or landlord. Because the poachers’ operations were unlawful they had to be cunning and devious. Many a pheasant roosting on the branch of a tree in the landlord’s demesne awoke with a light been shone in his eyes by one man while a companion slipped a noose of horsehair or wire over his head and dragged him down silently from his perch.

Of course, game of all descriptions was plentiful at that time in the demesnes and a number of pheasants could be taken in one night. At the present day you might have to walk a marathon to find a pheasant roosting on a branch. Another plan the poacher had to fool the landlord or gamekeeper was to get a companion to tie a flash lamp to the waving branch of a tree in one end of the demesne on a stormy night and fire a shot. While the gamekeeper made as fast as he could for the moving light, the real poacher plied his trade at the other end of the demesne.

Of course, rabbits, hares, deer, salmon and trout were also taken by snares, traps, and nets. l knew two great characters in Monaghan Town years ago. They were near enough neighbours, and great rivals. One was a renowned poacher; and the other a gamekeeper in the local Rossmore estate. The gamekeeper was a great fan of Kerry football and never missed a game in Croke Park when Kerry was playing. His name was Paddy McGuinness, and the poachers name was Tommy Hendry and neither of them would mind me telling this story.

Anyway, one Sunday when Kerry was playing in Croke Park both men were at mass in Monaghan Town. Hendry knowing that McGuinness always went to see the Kerry game in Croke Park made sure after mass to meet McGuinness and said, “l suppose you’re for Croke Park Paddy” to which McGuinness replied “l am surely”. Hendry went home to get his gear ready as he had heard that a small lake in the demesne had recently been stocked with trout, and safe in the knowledge that McGuinness was on his way to Croke Park. However, McGuinness was well aware of Hendry’s intentions and decided to forego his trip to Croker, in order to catch Hendry for once; as he had proved most elusive in the past.

Hendry was well settled in on the bank of the lake on the Sunday afternoon had several trout caught by fair means or foul and looking forward to more, when he suddenly heard a voice behind him saying “What’s the score now Hendry?” I heard this story from both characters.

Talking of gamekeepers. There was one old character who used to ramble (visit) in our house years ago. He was not a gamekeeper in the real sense, but looked after an area of bog and marshland near home. This was leased for shooting to a number of wealthy business men from Dublin by the Irish Land Commission who held the rights. Anyhow this gamekeeper was kept well supplied with cartridges and strychnine poison and was prepared to give either to people who would shoot or poison vermin. Many a night in our house while sitting by the fire this gamekeeper, James O’Brien, took a little paper bag of strychnine on the blade of his knife and gave it to some local farmer who would be rambling and had complained about his sheep being attacked by foxes or dogs. He would give one quick wipe to the blade, on his trousers, and seconds after would be cutting his tobacco plug with the same blade. My father often said that he expected him to stiffen suddenly. But thankfully it never happened and he lived to be a ripe old age.

We had a dog at the time called Webley and, on a few occasions, he was with us when we called to this man’s house. We got V.I.P. treatment from his wife Tess and ever afterwards when James O’Brien came on his monthly visit. Webley took off, and went the mile and a half to visit Tess. There he would be put on the armchair beside the fire and there he sat in peace with Tess as there was no family.

He was the one for the night and given every tit bit on the menu. He left for home when James arrived and I’m sure dream’t about the next monthly visit.

Man’s best friend also played a big part in poaching activities and a clever dog who would move silently to his masters command was a great companion in poaching whether it be to silently point a pheasant or grouse in cover or chase rabbits or hares into nets on a dark stormy night.

I have barely touched on the methods of poaching but maybe another day. Now ye can go back to poaching eggs, or fish in wine, on your own property, but you won’t get the same buzz, as your ancestor would when going home with a bag of game from the landlord’s demesne.

Enjoy the poached eggs anyway!

Tony is a retired Sargeant and a member of the Tidy Towns Committee

Cats are one of the few animals we don’t eat, says Tony Kilcommons

A feral cat is one that was domesticated, or whose ancestors were domesticated, but has reverted to the wild state. The cat was one of the last animals to be domesticated and adapts easily to a wild free-living existence.

Feral cats can be found in towns or rural areas. Fifty years ago in the country when rabbits were very plentiful a lot of cats took to the wild, probably obeying a primitive instinct. None of us can doubt the hunting ability of the domestic cat, which will often leave a dead mouse, rat or bird on the door step to prove that he is not redundant; so imagine the hunting ability of the wild cat who does not enjoy the culinary efforts of kitchen, supermarket or technology.

Wild humans

Feral cats, despite living in the wild, are usually in good condition. On the other hand, when humans go wild their condition usually deteriorates. Feral cats in the cities are in fierce competition for food, but then there are always cat lovers who will go out of their way to provide food. Cats can be great company for the elderly and one has only to see the huge number of people who throng to the various cat shows to realise how popular an animal they can be. Our feral cat of course has little chance of getting to a show, except he abandons the wild life and becomes domesticated. Cats, whether domesticated or wild, play a huge part in keeping the mice and rat numbers down especially the female cats, who are great hunters. In contrast the lazy tomcat has only one thing on his mind and that is not chasing mice or rats. As we can all testify he is a noisy gentleman when on amorous ramblings.

TV stars

They can also be very proud of their ability to star on television and video, and will be with us for a very long time. The cat is one of the few animals not to enter the food chain, despite what certain people would try to make us believe. So when you see a feral cat, think of him as a free spirit, who wanted more space for himself, or got fed up of us humans and our affluence.

Tony Kilcommons is a retired Garda Sergeant and President of Athenry Tidy Towns Committee and an author of some other very entertaining articles in The Athenry Journal

Starlings – Saints or Sinners?

The starling is one of the most common birds. Yet, up until the middle of the last century, the starling was relatively uncommon. The rise in the population of starlings is part of a pattern throughout Europe in which starlings have increased in numbers, and have spread westwards. The reasons for the population increase are not fully understood, but an important factor is the bird’s ability to live on a wide variety of foods. Fruits, seeds, flying insects, caterpillar, grubs, earthworms and household waste are all eaten. In spring the starlings diet consists mainly of insects and larvae. In summer fruits are important and by winter these are replaced by seeds. Another reason for the starlings’ success is that during the last century or so, large areas of Europe’s indigenous forests have been cleared for farming, and close-cropped grassland is a starling’s favourite habitat.

Starlings are so familiar to us that their beautiful iridescent plumage is so often overlooked. The starling’s song is not particularly musical, but it is remarkable for it’s mimicry of other bird calls. Starlings are closely related to those other master mimics, the mynah birds but, unlike the mynah bird cannot imitate human speech.

As well as feeding in flocks starlings also roost in flocks. Their consumption of a large number of leatherjackets is an obvious boost to the farmers, but on the other hand they can do a lot of damage to orchards. The nest is usually made in a natural hole, be it in a tree or cliff. However, any hole of the right size and situation will do, and cavities in the roofs of houses and farm buildings are especially popular. Between three and six eggs may be laid, although the usual clutch is five and starlings sometimes raise two clutches in a season. Years ago it was a favourite pastime for young boys with their slings and catapults to take up position in the flight path of huge flocks of starlings winging their way home to roost while the slings and catapults sent pebbles or other available missiles winging their way towards the flock with very little hope of success. While I’m sure that nowadays such a practice would be frowned upon, but it was just one of the many ways youngsters kept from getting bored in the late evenings. Their fathers made sure they did not get bored during the day.

Yours in Nature.

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!

In this edition I will attempt to introduce you to our twentieth century urban fox. Urban foxes are now well established in many of our towns and cities. In recent years, families of foxes have been reared at the site of the old turntable, beside the railway line in Athenry, and also in the covert at the entrance to Monaghan’s house near the Pound. The fox’s appearance in our urban areas has been a relatively recent phenomenon. It could be said that they have developed a taste for fast food as the diet of these urban dwellers consists mainly of scavenged food from rubbish heaps, garbage cans. It also includes small birds, rats, mice, frogs, berries and the odd cat, perhaps, for the want of a greater challenge. Our rural foxes have, of course, the choice of a better menu, with the odd lamb, chicken, duck or goose on offer.

Some years ago, fox pelts were fetching as much as twenty two pounds each, properly skinned and cured. Ten or twelve pounds could be got for the carcass of a fox without the trouble of skinning or curing it. This led to the wholesale slaughter of foxes by various methods, such as shooting, snaring, poisoning or trapping. During that period, I knew of one person in south Galway, who ‘travelled more than any ‘village schoolmaster of long ago’ in his search for foxes. The reason was that, at the time ladies fox fur coats were fetching as much as four thousand pounds each on the French market. All this slaughtering of foxes helped to increase the number of game birds, as foxes are notorious killers of pheasants and other game birds, which should be added to the menu mentioned earlier, became more plentiful than ever. Only the fittest and strongest survived and a survey showed that they also produced bigger and healthier litters. Such is nature’s way.

One of our urban foxes in Athenry had the audacity to sleep regularly in one of the gardens, at the rear of a house in Old Church Street. On a number of occasions I saw him being chased by a terrier in the direction of the railway embankment. If his pelt was worth anything like it would have been years ago, I have no doubt that he would have been better off to return to a rural way of life, where while still in dangerous territory, he could keep his options more open.

Yours in nature,

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!

Something for nothing is rare in this world but every year we humans have a multi-million pound job performed for us virtually free of charge. The job is pollination and it is done mostly by bees and a host of other insects. Without their tireless work we would not have most fruits and many other foods – not to mention honey. Bees, especially the species called honeybees, are important pollinators.

Colonies of wild bees often live in hollow trees, while domesticated colonies are housed in a hive usually a box-like structure. The work of the colony is done by female worker bees. Only one caste, the foragers, collect nectar. The nectar is collected by the bees from the flowers and aerated in the mouths, a process that evaporates most of the water. The addition of digestive juices completes the transformation into honey, to be stored in the hexagonal cells of beeswax that make up the honeycomb. White clover is a favourite with honeybees, and clover honey is supposed to be one of the most subtle tasting popular varieties.

Though the queen bee is the most important single individual in honeybee society, she in no way rules the roost. The queen’s chief function is to produce eggs, as she is the only sexually developed female in the hive, the workers are undeveloped females. For untold generations, humans have looked on the drone – the main honey bee as the embodiment of laziness. Indeed, many males of the human species have been likened to drones.

Most bees when they venture into a house, or amongst people are treading on dangerous ground, the reason of course being that they possess a nasty sting, which to the odd person can prove fatal. Some of us may be familiar with bees swarming, and on the odd occasion when they landed in a chimney, there can be a distressing time for the occupants.

Bees may swarm for several reasons, including a shortage of food, or an overzealous owner who keeps opening the hive. But often they swarm when the hive is overcrowded, and food is plentiful. When ready to swarm the current queen, and about half the workers depart the hive. They may settle temporarily on a convenient branch with the queen in the middle of the mass of workers and then scouts go out to seek a permanent home.

By the way if you get stung by a bee, or wasp, the best sting antidotes are A for B and V for W, in other words, ammonia for bee stings, vinegar for wasp stings.

Yours in Nature.

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!

The Badger

There are established badger populations all over Ireland. They are of course common in the Athenry area. Badgers are large, rather obtrusive animals, and at first sight it is difficult to understand how they have managed to survive in some of our built up areas. In rural areas earthworms constitute the major part of a badger’s diet. They also eat blackberries, mulberries, partial to potatoes and carrots and, especially, the honey from wild bees’ nests.

A badger’s home is known as a sett. They are mostly nocturnal but on a fine sunny day can be seen bringing out bedding from the sett to air or dry. Badgers will often share the same den as foxes which might show that they are more sociable than ourselves.

Some years ago badger skins were worth two pounds ten shillings in old money and of course in more recent times fox skins were worth from ten to fourteen pounds for the carcase unskinned, and high as twenty four pounds for the skin properly prepared and cured. At that time, of course, fox fur coats of good quality were selling for four thousand pounds in Paris. Since the bounty went both species have become plentiful to the delight of some and to the worry of others especially to farmers. The fox of course is partial to a nice bit of tender lamb, chicken or goose and aren’t we all.

The badger is blamed by some for spreading bovine T.B. and brucellosis which if proven correct is of course of serious consequence to our farmers. I suppose there are even some people who would like to blame them for spreading the B.S.E. disease. Badgers do not hibernate, but show very little activity in cold winter months, remaining mostly underground and living off their fat.

In rural areas most badger latrines are found on the boundaries of the group’s territory, with relatively few sited near the setts, which says something for their cleanliness. There is of course the constant threat to the badger of vehicular traffic and nearly everybody would have seen them killed on our roads from time to time.

What cannot be condoned, of course, is the cruel sport of badger baiting where the animal is often maimed before being savaged by dogs. He is above all a survivor and may he remain so like the Athenry Hurling Team.

Yours in nature

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Recent statistics estimate that there are sixty million rats in England. If all the people in England could be gathered into one arena it’s frightening to think that there would be one for everybody in the audience with plenty to spare. Now you might ask what has that to do with Athenry. Well while we have not the benefit of any recent statistics on rats you can be assured that if we had, we also would have one for everybody in the parish.

Why would anybody want to write about rats? Well, they have been so successful in surviving against man with all his wits, traps, and poisons, in spite of natural disasters, and countless predators who prey on them, plus death from natural causes, that not alone have they held their own, but have multiplied to an alarming statistic. Any species to be so successful in this world surely deserves a mention.

There are two types of rats, the brown or common rat, and the black rat. However the black rat which is smaller than brown, and are confined to sea port towns or cities, so we will not lose any sleep over him. Our local brown rat is the one we must pit our wits against. It is estimated that one pair of rats of the right gender in the right location, with the right conditions for breeding, and an adequate food supply, will multiply to a figure of two thousand in one year, with the help of their incestuous off-spring of course. It is said that they are here to help – that they are necessary to dispose of garbage, and to keep sewerage systems open, as well as providing food for countless predators. The Lord in his wisdom created then for a purpose, but whether we like it or not it appears that they are here to stay.

They will of course eat almost anything, and when not feeding are constantly chewing on something to keep their teeth from growing too long, and thereby causing enormous damage to all kinds of property.

They are also carriers of numerous diseases, and people with any kind of a cut or any injury where the skin is broken should be very careful when handling anything likely to have come in contact with rats.

There is no adequate explanation for “Rat King” dead rats found with their tails mysteriously, and elaborately knotted together, well recorded incidences of which have been found throughout the world over hundreds of years. Did the tails become soaked with urine and then frozen? Did they become frightened, and tried to escape, and got knotted together, or have they brought something sticky into the nest? In the Isle of Man, the locals never say rat, they will describe the rodent by spelling out R.A.T or refer to them as the lads with the long tails. I remember a few years ago while traveling on a bus on the Isle of Man, when the bus driver was asked about rats he agreed that they had them, and went on to tell about a time when there was a shilling bounty for a rat’s tail. An American tourist piped up from the back of the bus asking if that was what happened to the cats. Manx cats do not have tails although the ones I saw had, but there did exist a species of cat on the island without tails.

Enough said about foreign rats, and cats without trails, it’s time to think about the rats, or narrow backs as some people call them, who have come back from their summer holidays in the fields, and returned to more comfortable accommodation for the winter in farmyard buildings, and even the odd dwelling house. So perhaps it’s time to call the pest control man, resurrect any rat traps you may have, and give the dogs and cats a pep talk. Good hunting, and don’t feel bad about it – you won’t get them all.

Yours in nature.

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!

A Jaunty Songster

The blackbird is one of our most familiar and best loved garden birds. It is often regarded as uninteresting because of its familiarity. Because it is so easy to study, more is known of its lifestyle than of almost any other bird. Whatever about being too familiar and uninteresting it is still famed in song and story.

The adult male is quite literally a “black bird” with a wholly black plumage relieved only by a bright orange bill and orange eye ring. The females are much browner, with a pale throat and speckling on the breast. The breeding season is from early April to late May and sometimes earlier depending on the weather.

A clutch of three to six eggs is laid in a nest made of a layer of mud lined with grasses. The eggs are a dull blue green with reddish brown speckling. Incubation is carried out mainly by the female and lasts about a fortnight. The young birds when hatched are fed on worms and other animal food for two weeks at increasingly frequent intervals by both parents before they fledge.

This is their most vulnerable period, as they are unable to fly for about thirty-six hours after fledging. Blackbirds are mostly preyed upon by hawks, magpies, crows, rats and of course the most diligent pursuer of all our domestic cat. We are all familiar with a cat on a lawn or garden adopting a stealthy approach, just like his larger relatives we see on the television, as he attempts to outwit an alert blackbird. We are also familiar with a blackbird standing on the lawn with its head cocked to one side listening for the movement of a worm near the surface, before suddenly engaging in a tug of war with a three- or four-inch-long worm. When fully plucked from the ground, the worm is laid on the grass and then peeked at furiously, and I often wonder is it done to facilitate swallowing, or lessen the discomfort of the wriggling in the tummy.

One feature of the blackbird species is that it is prone to albinism and most of us would at sometime or another have seen a blackbird with various shades of white feathers and very occasionally, a complete white one can be seen.

The melodious fluting song of the blackbird is the one heard most often in our dawn choruses, and that can’t be bad considering the harsher notes we may be subjected to for the rest of the day.

One thing in parting you might keep in mind. When on occasion in some friendly hostelry and if slightly inebriated, if you are of mind to throw a step, ask the musician to play the “Blackbird” as I have it on good authority that it is a very simple straight forward tune and therefore the musician is less likely to go astray and you are less likely to make a complete idiot of yourself.

Yours in nature

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!

We have three types of white butterfly and, beautiful as they may appear in flight, it would be hard to find a gardener or commercial cabbage grower to say anything good about them. Caterpillars are voracious eaters of cabbage plants. In addition to eating brassica crops, the caterpillars of the large white eat other garden plants that contain mustard oils, including nasturtium, and mignonette.

Large and small white butterflies are common in towns, gardens and agricultural areas, while the green veined white is their country cousin frequenting water meadows and uncultivated areas.

Butterflies have a difficult time between egg and adult, being assailed, on all sides by predators, parasites, and disease, not to forget in recent times the constant use of pesticides, which in the long term may be slowly killing human beings. However human nature being what it is the commercial cabbage grower when faced with the thought of acres of cabbage being eaten by caterpillars, will mount the sprayer, and forget about the person who sits down to our traditional dinner of bacon, cabbage, and potatoes. Don’t let this spoil your appetite as everything we eat has some funny type of ingredient, as well as what we drink.

The use of pesticides is not confined to commercial growers as even people with small patches of cabbage will also spray against pests, instead of the more laborious old-fashioned way of dealing with the problem. However, let’s hope we all die of natural causes when our time comes, and then neither the butterflies, or pesticides will enter the equation.

On a lighter note, many people have spent most of their lives observing the behaviour of butterflies, capturing them and preserving them, even risking their lives in tropical jungles in pursuit of this

activity. Now and again, in Athenry we may be lucky on the occasion to see a beautifully coloured visitor who is no threat to our cabbage patch. However, be it a humble white or multicoloured beautiful specimen of butterfly that decides to land in our garden, will want to live up to the name of being elusive or the cat that commutes between ours and the next door neighbour’s garden, will make sure that never again will it trouble a cabbage patch or indeed any other type of patch.

Of course, seeing that we have consumed large quantities of cabbage with our bacon and spuds over the years, the chances are high that we also consumed a few juicy caterpillars along the way. But don’t feel bad about that as we can console ourselves in the thought, each one we might have eaten did not get a chance to grow into a butterfly to create more caterpillars to attack our favourite vegetable.

Yours in Nature

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!

Have you ever seen a mink in the wild? If the answer is no, you have not missed much. He is not pretty to look at, bad tempered and a deadly killer of small animals, fish, frogs, ducks, poultry, water birds of all kinds that frequent rivers and lakes. Remember earlier this year when a good number of swans were kept in a shed near the docks in Galway after an oil spillage at the Claddagh basin. Well, a single mink got in and killed a number of them. This goes to show, for a small animal, how ferocious they are. They will kill for the hell of it. They may also be partial to a bit of lamb.

I have seen three mink in the wild in recent times. One swimming in the river near the bridge below the post office here in Athenry about two years ago. When two young boys started to shout on seeing him, he immediately started to screech. I think it would be fair to say that minks are the least welcome of all foreign species living here but not native to this country. Even though they are unwelcome, their pelts, were once highly prized and sought after for the making of mink coats. Hence the reason for their introduction to this country to be bred and reared in captivity and then killed for their fur.

I once lived near a mink farm, which was situated near a chicken hatchery and this meant a steady supply of reject day-old chicks to feed the mink at little cost. The only thing was that the deformed chicks were thrown into the containers while mostly alive, and then fed to the mink. Some people did not look kindly to that practice. However, the trade flourished while ladies thought it was the height of fashion to sport a mink coat and men thought that such a present of a mink coat would surely win the lady’s affection. Whether the intentions were honourable, or otherwise, were often the subject of debate.

Minks are long slim members of the weasel family usually black, or dark brown in colour. They were prolific breeders in captivity, when handled carefully, and left to their own devices at crucial times. Then when the market declined for clothing made from animal pelts, some breeders let the mink free, others escaped, and now we have a serious problem. I hope they will not breed as well in the wild as they did in captivity, and I don’t think much research has been done on that subject, only time will tell. If they do breed successfully in the wild, then our wild life on land and water, as well as our farmyard friends are in trouble.

Minks like to live near rivers, streams and lakes, and I’m told that where they have established themselves, the wildlife is fast disappearing. Some gun clubs have been trapping them for years and I believe they can be trapped easily enough in baited cages, near rivers or streams. This method is more humane than using steel traps. What is done with the trapped animal is another days work. Perhaps you could try at making a mink hat for yourself, and hope when attending Church, Chapel, Meeting House, Hurling Matches, or Marts you might not suffer from taunts like “give the animals back their skins”. Some years ago, people wearing clothing made from animal pelts were regularly subjected to such taunts and this as well as the activities of the animal rights groups, brought about the end of the fur coats. Maybe some still exists in wardrobes guarded, by mothballs, and donned again in the privacy of the bedroom, in the moments of nostalgia.

However, on a more serious note to combat the mink problem people should think about getting a cross dog. We are all aware about the advice given on a regular basis years ago to the anxious fathers and mothers with young daughters, not yet of marriageable age to get a cross dog, to keep marauding males at bay. However, I think that the proverbial cross dog, has outlived his usefulness for the purpose aforesaid. But of course, a cross dog has other uses, apologies to Postmen and Guards and proved very effective in keeping predators such as foxes, badgers, pine martens and weasels at bay.

It is said that the mink is a very ferocious fighter and cats or easy-going dogs would have no chance against him. I, however, believe that a good cross dog would be the ideal protection around the farmyard, as they have proved their worth in the past, and still are around the house or farmyard. By the way, should you come face to face with a mink in narrow corners, don’t be fooled by his size, call the cross dog, and don’t put your finger at risk, as you will need them to go about your daily tasks, to open your Christmas presents, or raise a glass to propose a toast. Now, when you sit down to your Christmas dinner this year, and gaze, be it with a clear or jaundiced eye, good appetite, bad appetite, or no appetite at all, don’t forget to thank the Lord for what you are about to receive. It might be no harm either to say a silent word of thanks that our friend the mink didn’t get around to depriving you of it.

Merry Christmas to one and all!

Yours in Nature

Editor’s note: Click on the Author’s name below for more of his articles!