Snipe Hawking in Ireland

By Emily Toner and Jen Guyton, Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows

Parked on the shoulder of a mossy rural road in Ireland, Don Ryan’s two passengers sit calmly in their tiny leather helmets. He’s taking them out to an iconic Irish place for a special meal that is only seasonally available--snipe on the bog. 

Mr. Ryan is a falconer, a person who trains and hunts with birds of prey. In addition to the two male peregrine falcons riding shotgun, this hunting team has a fourth member in the back of the van, his Irish Red and White Setter named Libby.

Bogs are often the setting of Mr. Ryan’s hunts, a wetland habitat where birds like snipe, grouse and woodcock can be found. Irish bogs once blanketed 2.7 million acres of the country, of which less than a quarter is now in suitable condition for habitat conservation. Most Irish bogs have been drained for peat extraction or converted to forestry or pasture land. In its last report to the European Union’s Habitat Directive, Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service classified the status of Irish bogs as bad and declining.

Under a gray sky in early January, Mr. Ryan’s hunting targets are the snipe and jack snipe that fly in from Siberia, Iceland and northern Europe to spend the winter in Irish bogs and wetlands. He worries that some remaining bogs are too small for hunting, since he needs wide open areas where his falcons can stoop, a high speed dive, without grazing woody shrubs or trees growing at the edge of a bog. Additionally, when peat harvest eats away the size of a bog, the shrunken remainder is a less appealing habitat for the birds that Mr. Ryan’s falcons would hunt.