Game for a new job? First catch your rabbit

Limavady man Steven McGonigal is Ireland’s only professional warrener
Limavady man Steven McGonigal is Ireland’s only professional warrener

The job description has existed for centuries and the work has changed relatively little in that time, but today Limavady man Steven McGonigal is Ireland’s only professional warrener.

Next week he will be demonstrating his work – and handing out some career guidance – with a fascinating main arena display at the largest ever Irish Game Fair at Shane’s Castle, Antrim over the weekend of June 23rd and 24th.

Modern-day warrener Steven will step into the past to educate, inform and entertain the show crowds, donning the costume and character of one of the ‘Norfolk Warreners’ of old.

The ‘Norfolk Warreners’ were famous, last century, for creating and managing one of the most productive rabbit warrens in the country and their methods and style are still honoured today.

Working with his trained Lurchers and Ferrets and using traditional Long Nets to demonstrate how those warreners went about their business, Steven will showcase a suite of rural skills which have changed little over the years.

Today however the emphasis is less on raising rabbit as a food source and more on controlling rabbit populations and minimising the damage rabbits can do.

Unchecked, that damage includes creating holes in the countryside that can harm livestock, and damage footpaths and recreational areas, while their feeding habits can also impact adversely on crops and protected flora.

He says: “We tend to think about rabbits as indigenous wild animals but the rabbit which abounds in the Irish countryside is not actually a native.

“We believe it was brought here in the 12th century from Spain by the Normans or Romans in order to be farmed, at a time when a rabbit cost more than a work man’s daily wage due to their popularity and lack of supply.

“Originally rabbits were kept in large stone enclosures and farmed much as sheep and cattle are today.

“They were valued not only their meat but also for their fur and even their bones which, back then, were used to make glue.

“Over the years we have rather lost our taste for rabbit meat which was popular in Northern Ireland right up until the 1950s, but at last it is being rediscovered and is enjoying a renaissance as celebrity chefs showcase not only its taste, but also its health properties.

“Rabbit is lean, almost cholesterol free, with a high percentage of easily digestible protein, plus it tastes delicious.

“I hope that this new appetite and respect for rabbit as a source of food will give my role as a modern-day warrener a change of emphasis.

“I would love to move away from simple pest control towards protecting rabbits from predators and poachers as rabbits become increasingly recognised as valuable livestock.”

Steven will be staging his display of the warreners’ arts and skills in the main arena at the show, with showings right across the weekend.

The Irish Game Fair is supported by TourismNI and Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

The Irish Game Fair will be open to the public on June 23rd and 24th at Shane’s 
Castle, Antrim, with an advance flavour of what to expect available at https://player.vimeo.com/video/258116515 and at www.irishgamefair.com.