Hunting with Ireland's last rabbit catcher

By: AFP      Published: 03:56 PM, 21 Aug, 2020
Hunting with Ireland's last rabbit catcher

Steven McGonigal crosses a pockmarked field in the north of Ireland with a box of unruly ferrets while his dog, Fudge, sniffs out rabbit warrens.

As the lurcher does his work, McGonigal covers the openings with nets before releasing a single ferret down the hole to flush out the occupants inside.

For five minutes, the ferret races around the underground tunnels, poking its head out of dotted holes like a whack-a-mole. 

McGonigal looks on in twitchy anticipation.

Then, in a split-second blur of grey fur, a rabbit emerges tangled in a net. McGonigal sprints over, grasps it by the legs and neck and dispatches it with a deft tug.

"It's the traditional way," the 37-year-old former accountant told AFP in a field outside Carndonagh at the northern edge of Ireland.

"We don't damage the ground, we're not laying poisons, we give the rabbits a quick and clean death -- and that's most important."

- Unique appeal - 

McGonigal is said to be Ireland's last traditional rabbit catcher, preferring ferrets, dogs, spades and nets instead of modern guns and poison.

Rabbits -- fluffy, cute and doe-eyed to many, and kept as household pets -- are considered pests in the countryside.

They are greedy consumers of vegetation, their warrens compromise buildings, and their breeding rate can quickly inflate numbers.

As well as gardeners and farmers, McGonigal has built up a client list for his services including schools, golf courses and oil refineries.

Becoming the last rabbit catcher in Ireland's emerald outdoors is a far cry from his former accounting job.

"I was getting to where I was looking forward to going out, I was starting to dread going back in," he said of his previous number-crunching profession.

After a childhood spent owning ferrets, fishing and shooting, taking the career leap to full-time rabbit catcher in 2013 was a natural step, he said.

But he admitted that the sometimes grisly demands of killing rabbits by hand is not for everyone. 

"It doesn't appeal to a lot of people," he conceded.

- Environmental impact - 

The practice of rabbit catching with ferrets dates back centuries.

An illustration in the 14th-century manuscript, the Taymouth Hours, depicts a lady sending a dog or a ferret down a warren to drive a rabbit out into a net.

McGonigal believes that while the ancient hands-on method may be distasteful to some, it remains the best way to cull numbers.

"The problem is nowadays... people are building houses further and further and further, and they're encroaching into the countryside every day," he said.

As human and animal kingdoms become increasingly intertwined, less refined methods of hunting have become popular -- and damaging.

Lead shot from guns can taint the soil and poisons can be indiscriminate, leaving animal corpses underground with no indication of how many have been killed.

McGonigal's technique leaves no trace and allows him to precisely measure the number of rabbits he has removed from the landscape, which he believes keeps the ecosystem and food chain better calibrated.

"Nobody loves rabbits more than me," he said. "But we have to keep the balance -- the countryside is always about the balance."