Shanbally Woodcock mystery solved after 45 years

Kevin Collins

Kevin Collins

On 13th December 1907 a man called Armand David shot a Woodcock in Hasparren, Basses Pyrenees, France.

It had been fitted with a metal ring which was marked with “SY 04”. There was no address stamped on the ring. He sent the details to Rossitten Ornithological Station in Germany and the record of the Woodcock of unknown origin was published in their annual report of 1908.

It was not until 45 years later that a man called W. Rydzewski solved the mystery. He was looking for references to early experiments in bird ringing.

He found a note by W.R. Hickey in Country Life in 1909 stating that “commencing with the year 1904 the keepers at Shanbally Castle, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, have marked a few young Woodcock each spring.

The rings used for the purpose all bear the letters ‘SY 04’ but the year in which any particular ring was used can be identified”. It was evident that the Woodcock shot in southern France had been ringed at Shanbally castle.

This is a remarkable story for several reasons. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ringing scheme was set up in 1909 and it operates all bird ringing in Ireland and Britain. I was amazed that individuals were carrying out their own ringing experiments in Tipperary before the BTO scheme started.

Back in 1904, I thought the owners of large estates were only interested in huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. The idea that they would have their keepers catch a Woodcock and not eat it, surprised me.

How things have changed since then. Shanbally Castle was demolished around 1960 despite many protests. Apart from periods of military occupation, the castle had been largely unoccupied for the previous 40 years.

I wonder if there is anyone still living in the Clogheen area who knows anything about bird ringing at Shanbally. There is nothing there now to suggest that a beautiful building stood there.

Rossitten was the first bird observatory in the world. It was set up in that part of Germany on the Baltic coast in 1900. There is still an observatory there but it became part of Russia after the second world war and is now known as Rybachy.

Finally, the note said that a few young woodcock were marked each spring. Our Irish Woodcock are thought to be largely sedentary, so it would be surprising if an Irish born Woodcock migrated to southern France.

The Woodcock population in Russia and Fennoscandia is migratory and spends the winter in Ireland, France and Spain. It is possible that an adult from Russia spent one winter in Shanbally, went back to Russia to breed the following summer and then went to southern France the following winter.

In any event, it is a very interesting story and a great piece of detective work by Mr. Rydzewski. He was able to put these two obscure pieces of information together to solve a puzzle at a time when there was no internet to search or databases to check.

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