TALES FROM THE FIELDS: Livestock killed by stray bullets angers farmers

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Unrest among farmers whose land ran down to the foreshore of Strangford Lough, Co Down, at livestock losses caused by stray .22 bullets fired by wildfowlers had led to agitation for government action to curb the issue of licences for rifles which the landowners claim “can kill at a mile distance”, it was reported this week in 1965.

The mysterious sudden death of an £80 bullock in a field on the farm of Mr J Rutherford, at Troopersfield, near Comber – the body had a small hole, sixpence size, at the top of a front leg – had caused renewed agitation in the district for a strong line by the Ulster Farmers’ Union in approaches to the Ministry of Home Affairs for immediate action.

Sheep losses in the district had also been reported and Mr James Ritchie, Cullintra, Comber, secretary of the local branch of the UFU, said: “There is discontent among farmers at the use of these weapons.”

Mr Ritchie added: “I don’t believe .22 rifles are necessary for wildfowling on the lough foreshore. They are dangerous and have long-range lethal capabilities. No farmer wants to stop anyone enjoying a bit of sport, but when stock have been lost and others are in danger, with the added dread that perhaps some day it might not be a sheep that is shot then obviously something should be done about it.

“The matter will be raised at a meeting of Comber branch of the union.”

Mr Ritchie said that in 1964, too, several animals were shot – “and while wild fowlers are not being accused of deliberately making farm animals their targets, the threat to livestock, and to farmers and their families, can be removed by a clamp down on the issue of .22 rifle licences as against ordinary shotguns which no one objects to and which have a range – sufficient for good sport but not dangerous if not deliberately used on farm stock– of 40 or 50 yards”.

Farmers in the district recalled that casualties during the previous year included sheep, a bullock and a pony.

Mr Rutherford said the bullock found dead on his farm had looked perfectly healthy the previous night.

Apparently, however, immediate steps were not taken to ascertain if the hole in the leg had been caused by a bullet and it was only later that the possibility was considered.

“Nevertheless,” said Mr Rutherford, “although we are about three miles from the, lough foreshore, that seems to be the logical – and perhaps the only – explanation.”

Mr Rutherford said he had in the past done some shooting himself – but always with a shotgun.

“The use of .22 rifles should either be banned or there should be rigid supervision over the place and time of their use. They should be kept at a gun club and taken out only for a specified shoot at an arranged time on a fixed date and afterwards returned to the safe custody of the club,” he said.

Other farmers in the district shared Mr Rutherford’s concern at the apparent “wholesale issue” of .22 rifle licences and there was also considerable ill-feeling at the amount of trespass on their lands and the disturbance caused by wildfowlers – “their nuisance value,” as one farmer said.

Mr. Bobbie Ferguson, who farmed 98 acres at Longlands, Comber, right on the lough foreshore,said: “They are banging away there before dawn and after sunset I have had to call the police. It has been impossible at times to get our youngster to sleep in the evening with all the noise of guns on the fore shore.”

Mr. Ferguson had not had any livestock losses but he said: “I sympathise with those who have had losses. The death of an animal or two takes a lot of making up.” Farmers in the district alleged that rifle clubs were being used to obtain possession of .22 licences.

At Newtownards mart, in a discussion on the foreshore problem, farmers asserted that .22 licences were easily obtained by persons who become members of rifle clubs.

“After getting their licensed 22 rifles they cease to take any further interest in the club but continue to keep licences paid up,” one of the farmers said.

Some farmers asserted that the necessity for a drastic clamp down on the issue of .22 licences would be obviated by a switch from ordinary .22 ammunition to short-range cartridges.