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Seabirds and Their Eggs


SEABIRDS AND THEIR EGGS. Seabirds and their eggs played an important part in the coastal economies and life patterns of many areas of the North Atlantic fringes of Europe into the twentieth century. In the struggle for survival in peripheral socioeconomic settings, the harvesting of seabirds and their eggs was a means of providing seasonal fresh foods and of augmenting the supply of preserved foodstuffs for winter and spring. The exploitation of these natural resources was an activity that required adaptation to the environment, ingenuity, courage, and a taste for foodstuffs often considered unpalatable by inland dwellers.

Seabird fowling and egg collection were undertaken by men while women were normally involved in the preparation and processing of the birds and eggs for household food or sale. Since seabirds exist primarily on the sea but come to rocks, cliffs or grassy sea-slopes, to breed and roost, they and their eggs were normally taken from these habitats by scaling up or down the rocks, cliffs or slopes. Bird-catching was a complex activity and a wide range of catching methods were employed depending on the roosting habits of the birds. Among the most common along the North Atlantic region were catching or seizing by hand, using snares consisting of a single noose or jaw attached to the end of a fowling rod, arranging multiple nooses on the ground, and using nets of various kinds, to trap the birds.

Seabird fowling and egg collecting varied in intensity along the north Atlantic region from Iceland in the north to Ireland in the south. The harvesting of seabirds on the Faroe Islands was described by Kenneth Williamson in 1948 and more recently by Arne Nørrevang (1977). John R. Baldwin has compared the fowling equipment, techniques and allied terminology of the Faroes with the centuries-old practice of seabird fowling on islands off the northwestern and northern coasts of Scotland, an activity that has attracted attention for several centuries. Sir Donald Munro mentions Sula Sgeir in that context in 1549, and Martin Martin in A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (c. 1695), tells that the inhabitants of the isle of St. Kilda (abandoned since 1930) killed and preserved an enormous quantity of seabirds and preserved seabirds' eggs in peat ash, which gave then an astringent taste. St. Kilda was, in fact, unique in Scotland for its organized farming of the fowling cliffs. The year's cycle has been described as "killing of gannets and some shearwaters in April, collecting eggs of puffins and catching fulmars in May, snaring puffins in July, catching fulmars and gannets in August and catching young gannets in September" (Fenton, 1987, p. 170).

These activities on St. Kilda were a response to an extreme environment. Elsewhere in Scotland wild birds and their eggs were welcome seasonal supplements to the diet, rather than being a major focus of economic activity. May was the time for harvesting the eggs of gulls, fulmars, puffins, razor-bills, guillemots and so on. Guillemot and gannet flesh was eaten. A limited cull of the young of the gannet (Gaelic: guga ) still takes place on Suileisgeir (Gaelic: Sula Sgeir, "gannet reef"), a small barren island with craggy cliffs covered in guano, lying forty miles northwest of Lewis. This centuries-old tradition is carried on by the community of Ness, at the northernmost tip of the Island of Lewis, also in the Outer Hebrides. It is the only surviving gannet hunt in the British Isles.

Gannet hunting on Suileisgeir was regulated by the First Bird Protection Act of 1869, which gave the men of Ness a special dispensation to take gannet chicks. Nowadays, annual licences to take 2,000 such birds, starting only from the first week in September, when the birds are about three months old, are necessary. A crew of ten men spend two weeks on the rock catching and preparing the birds. All equipment, food supplies, including fresh water, and salt to dress the birds, must be ferried to the rock.

The method of catching has changed little over the centuries, and men still go down the steep cliff-faces on ropes to trap the birds. They are caught using a long fowling rod with an iron jaw fixed at the end, which is put around the bird's neck and pulled closed by a rope to trap the bird. The manner of processing has also changed little over time. They are plucked, and the down is removed by singeing over a peat flame, which apparently confers its unique flavor on the flesh. The ribcage and entrails are removed, and cuts made in the four pockets of meat at the wings and legs are packed with salt. The finished birds are then carefully laid in a wheel-like formation, lair upon lair, in order to retain the pickle drawn from the flesh by the salt so that it will not become hard and salty.

The birds are sold on the quay on return and are much in demand. They are scrubbed clean with washing soda, placed in a pot, covered with boiling water and boiled for twenty minutes. The water is then changed and the bird is boiled for a further twenty minutes. This procedure is repeated a third time. In this way the salt content in the bird is reduced. The flesh has the texture of meat with a salty and fishy flavour. It is, indeed, an acquired taste.

The role of the gannet chick as a food in the Ness community has changed greatly in the course of the twentieth century. No longer necessary as a welcome variation in diet, it has become somewhat of a delicacy which embodies a sense of identity for the people of Ness.

Seabird fowling and egg collecting were also seasonal activities along parts of the Atlantic coast of Ireland, from Rathlin island in the northeast where the cliffs and seaslopes were apportioned in strips, and individual men in search of eggs and birds would lower themselves on ropes attached to iron spikes in the cliff edge, westwards to the great cliffs in southwest Donegal, northwest county Mayo, around the Conamara coast, in the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, and in county Clare on the towering Cliffs of Moher, in some cases into the twentieth century.

Further south on the islands and coastlands of county Kerry, seabirds, their eggs and feathers, were important in the food-provision strategies and local market economy of the Blasket Islands and contiguous mainland from at least the eighteenth century. The most westerly of the Blasket Island group, a towering rock appropriately named Tiarach "westerly isle" was the seabirds' haunt par excellence especially of the puffin population, whose eggs and chicks were exploited for food.

On the Great Blasket Island the eggs of the oyster catcher, guillemot, razor-bill, puffin and seagull were eaten. The flesh of guillemot, razor-bill and to some extent that of the Manx shearwater, cormorant and storm petrel were eaten, fresh, or preserved by salting for later use. Salted seabird were also sold on the mainland. The young of the puffin was considered the "chicken of the sea" and was much sought after. Because of its fat content it was roasted in a pot or grilled on a tongs laid over live cinders to allow some of the fat to escape. The storm petrel, a very small bird, was similarly cooked to discharge its fat. Regarded as a delicacy, and an acquired taste, it appears to have been swallowed whole rather than chewed.

By the early twentieth century seabird-fowling was no longer an organized, specific food-provision strategy on the Great Blasket Island due in some measure to the expansion and demands of the fishing industry during the summer months, but also to changing tastes, reflected, too, in the cessation of the hunting of seals for food.

Gannet hunting, for the flesh and feathers of the young chicks, was still practiced commercially on the Little Skellig, a great towering sea-crag lying in the Atlantic to the south of the Blasket Islands, and the second largest gannetry worldwide, in the course of the nineteenth century. By the end of that century, however, this activity was no longer viable, and the rock was too distant and the sea too rough for local light rowing-craft to reach. And the very strong and fishy taste of these birds was no longer desired.


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Patricia Lysaght

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