King of the fishers


King of the fishers

Thursday, 24 January 2013
8:00 AM GMT

To a fisherman the Cormorant is probably the most hated of all birds, even more so than that other deadly fish-killer, the Heron, but then the Heron is a much more graceful looking bird. There is an air of menace about a Cormorant, in some parts of the country they are called Black Devils. But, seen close-up they are not black, they are a dark shade of green, and they have white markings on their faces and flanks.

They are notoriously shy of people, and will take off with a flapping of their wings on the water if you go near them. In recent years their numbers have increased and they are now a protected species. The Irish name for a cormorant is Broigheall, but along the West coast of Ireland they were once called Fiach Mara, which means Sea Raven, at the mouth of the Shannon they were once trapped and eaten by fishermen.

They also suffered much in the 1930s and 1940s, being shot and trapped for the bounty that was on their heads. Cormorants were seen as such a menace to fish stocks that the Fisheries Board of the time paid a bounty on their heads, and at the time you would get a half-crown, a lot of money in the Ireland of the Thirties and Forties. There are many stories of Cormorants heads being brought for the bounty again and again until they stank to the high heavens.

It is quiet well known that in China and Japan, Cormorants are trained by fishermen to catch fish, not so well known is that in England since the time of the Stuart sovereigns, the same practice was carried out. As late as the 1880s a Captain F.H.Slavin trained a pair of Cormorants to catch fish, it is very unlikely that this gentleman was a disciple of Izaak Walton. Before laws were brought in to protect them, a very far-seeing lady, Betty Lucas, who lived at Cregg Olympry, established a bird sanctuary on her lands, and it was here that the first large colony of Cormorants in this area settled.

The tall Beech and Ash trees along the bank of the Blackwater became a roosting place for them. It is very east to see where they roost, as all the vegetation underneath them turns white from their constant droppings, no other birds will live or make their nests anywhere near them. If you can get close to a colony of them, you will hear a constant chattering, as though they are arguing with each other.

Although clumsy on the ground, Cormorants are superb swimmers and flyers, a good time to watch them is in the evenings when they come into roost. They will patrol over their roosting place several times to make sure that it is safe, then, with wings extended they will swoop in to settle down for the night. Cormorants are capable of eating large amounts of fish at the one time, sometimes to the extent that they can hardly rise off the water.

Some years ago, in Glenseskin Wood in Kilworth, I came on one who had just come out of the stream with his crop so full that one fish was sticking out, still wriggling at both sides of the Cormorants beak. He ran along the forest track, trying to take off, it was only when he let go of the trout that he managed to take flight, I picked up the trout which still bore the marks of its struggle, it was just barely alive and would not have survived. It made a nice supper, waste not, want not.

Cormorants have been known to live for 23 years and it is estimated that there are over four thousand breeding pairs in Ireland. Sketch of Cormorant courtesy of Kelly.

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