Why hunt fowl?
As part of the Between Islands project, Shetland’s new online exhibition, ‘Fair Game’ examines three customs that are now sometimes viewed rather emotively – fowling, whaling and peat cutting. Here, curator Ian Tait takes a closer look at the practice of hunting seabirds and eggs, and how historically North Atlantic islanders relied on seafowl for food and many other practical uses.
North Atlantic islanders relied on seafowl for food over millennia, broadening their diet by extending limited resources. Birds were roasted when fresh, and salted ones were boiled throughout the year. Feathers had many uses; soft ones for bedding, quills in toys, bright ones for fishing lures. St Kilda’s folk depended on birds like folk elsewhere used fish and seals: islanders made bait from puffins, lamp oil from fulmars, shoes from gannets.
Northern and Western islanders caught birds using similar methods – snares, nets, and ropes. For cliff-laying birds, operations were dangerous, and men on the clifftop lowered someone over the precipice on a rope. Cliff fowlers carried a basket for eggs, and birds were tied around the man’s waist. George Low described operations in Foula in 1774: “They never trust much to the rope nor stake. Once they have got footing, they depend more on their own climbing than any rope… Few who make this practice for life die a natural death.” People only targeted particular species, because it was vital to not overexploit resources that humans partly depended on for survival.
Listen: Ian Tait will be interviewed for Radio Scotland’s ‘Sunday Morning’ live show on Sunday 31 January at 10.00am, where he will be discussing the Fair Game exhibition and together with a panel discussing what causes society to change its behavior, and how/if it should be changed more.