How a thriving food industry faded away to nothing in the 1960s

At its peak, more than one million rabbits per year were exported from Co Cork alone in the early 1940s.

A thriving rural food industry once supported at least 20 large exporting firms in Co Cork alone... but it faded away to nothing in the 1960s.

But many of our existing 21st Century food businesses first became established in this sector, the wild rabbit trade. 

They took advantage of strong demand from Britain, and a strong supply base of rabbits in Ireland, once estimated at up to 40 million.

Across the fields of ireland, catching rabbits for traders enabled some hardworking entrepreneurs to buy land and establish farming dynasties which last to this day.

Author Michael Conry recently published The Rabbit Industry in Ireland, which reveals in great detail how the rabbit was our only wild mammal to become the basis of a significant industry.

Conry interviewed over 900 people in every county, north and south, for his 528-page book, detailing how entrepreneurs thrived in the rabbit business… and how some others, including farmers’ leaders, eventually decimated our rabbit colonies, also killing off the rabbit export business.

When the country was once overrun by millions of rabbits, they caused severe damage to grassland, tillage, vegetables and new forestry plantations.

With 40 rabbits estimated to eat as much grass as one bullock, our rabbit colonies were once equivalent to a million cattle roaming across farms in search of grazing.

What makes the rabbit an ideal source of food (its unrivalled capacity to quickly convert any green vegetation into large quantities of wholesome meat) made it a pest of almost unrivalled potential to damage crops, and compete with livestock.

Farmers all over Ireland complained about the damage on grassland and crops caused by dense populations of rabbits. The damage was two-fold. 

Firstly, rabbits devoured large quantities of grass and, secondly, their droppings rendered grassland obnoxious and so unpalatable that livestock refused to graze it. In extreme cases, livestock were on the verge of starvation due to rabbit infestations.

All tillage crops, agricultural and horticultural, except for potatoes, were severely damaged, especially where small fields were surrounded by ditches infested with rabbits. 

Crops such as sugar beet, cabbage, onions, carrots and lettuce were hit hard, making rabbits equally the enemy of suburban gardeners and rural dwellers.

Foresters maintained that, up to 1954, the rabbit was the most serious of all their pest adversaries, and having to erect wire netting to protect new plantations greatly increased their costs.

The big estates employed trappers and snarers to reduce the rabbit population.

Rabbits were also being routinely caught by the poorer sections of the community in order to put food on their tables, and provide them with extra income.

Rabbits were once seen for sale, hanging outside shops, in every town in Ireland. And “rabbit-men” hawked them door-to-door.

But it was export demand in Britain, especially during the two World Wars, when every form of food and meat, except rabbit meat, was severely rationed, that turned the rabbit from a pest into a valuable meat animal in Ireland.

Rabbit exporting businesses developed in many towns.

Michael Conry’s book discloses that at least 20 large rabbit exporting firms became established in Co Cork.

Most of these firms exported skinned rabbits to Britain on the Innisfallen ships on the route between Cork and Fishguard.

Many dried rabbit skins and exported them to England, Europe and the USA, mainly for the felt hat industry.

In West Cork, Michael Conry lists the Hennessys in Enniskeane, the O’Sullivans in Dunmanway, and the O’Regans in Clonakilty.

In Cork city, he lists Whitakers, Farm Products, Lanes, Mortells, Murphys. and Russell and Sons.

The book also lists the Fitzpatricks of Kanturk, John Robert Allen in Belgooly, and three exporters in Fermoy – the Lysaghts, O’Connors and Kinirys.

Jim Maguire in Kildorrery, and Willie Carr in Curraglass, near Tallow, were also prominent in the rabbit business.

Other large rabbit exporting businesses in Munster included Jack Aird, Cappagh, Co Waterford; O’Connor’s in Cappoquin; and JJ O’Connor in Tipperary town.

Other large buyers and exporters included Carton Brothers in Dublin; Walter Kehoe in Carlow; Martin Beirne in Carrick-on-Shannon; Knipes in Armagh; Bells in Crossgar, Co Down; Sawers in Belfast; Jack Brett in Windgap, Co Kilkenny; and the Associated Merchandise Company in Dublin. 

The latter, owned by William Ahern, a native of Mitchelstown, Co Cork, was one of the biggest exporters of poultry and rabbits in Ireland.

They all got their rabbits from an army of catchers, the most successful of whom made a good living catching rabbits, especially when prices were highest during the two World Wars.

Michael Conry has tracked down a number of examples of the best rabbit trappers, snarers, ferreters and dazzlers being able to buy farms with the proceeds from rabbit sales.

They were full-time trappers, with some organising and managing teams of trappers (they were able to roam the countryside, because trespassing on lands was not the sensitive issue which it is now).

Michael Conry has discovered that the expansion of the rabbit trade proved a rare business opportunity for islanders.

West Cork’s Cape Clear and Whiddy Islands, for example, were infested with rabbits, and attracted trappers from as far away as Co Limerick.

It was a far cry from modern rabbit farming in the EU, with 340 million rabbits per year reared in cages and slaughtered for meat.

The EU is the world’s leading rabbit producer, and a big importer also, but the industry is being impacted now by falling consumer demand.

Output is falling about 4% per year, and MEPs recently voted in favour of banning cage rabbit rearing.

How big the wild rabbit industry became in Ireland is difficult to tell, recounts Michael Conry, due to lack of reliable statistics.

However, he estimates that more than one million rabbits per year were exported from Co Cork alone in the early 1940s.

Back in the first half of the 20th century, Irish farmers were only too happy to see the rabbit pest become a prized meat animal.

But that wasn’t enough for many farmers, who saw them only as crop-damaging pests, and were determined to wipe them out.

Hence the arrival in Ireland in 1954 of the viral myxomatosis disease, not by accident, according to Michael Conry, who gives a detailed account in his book of how it was introduced.

Unfortunately, the rabbit export business was thrown into havoc.

The highly infectious disease had an immediate and catastrophic effect on rabbit populations.

By 1955, it had spread to every corner of Ireland.

It was the beginning of the end for rabbit traders. Consumers were afraid to eat the diseased rabbits, and many of the large exporters stopped buying.

The rabbit population was decimated, then began to recover in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But the rabbit meat trade had fizzled out.

It had been an important rural enterprise, but it was ironically farmers’ leaders who helped to spread myxomatosis, to end the rabbit pest’s damage to their crops once and for all.

Thankfully, Michael Conry’s investigations show that many of the companies for which rabbits were once big business survived.

A native of Co Roscommon, the author graduated in agricultural science from UCD in 1958, and worked with Teagasc until retirement in 2003, and with its forerunner organisations, ACOT and An Foras Taluntais.

He has published many books on soil science, and on Ireland’s cultural heritage.

The 528-page full colour hardback, The Rabbit Industry in Ireland, sub-titled 20th Century Snapshots, includes over 300 photographs, maps and drawings.

It available for about €30 in local bookshops, or direct from Michael Conry (059-9131535, 086-4416969, or conrymj@gmail.com 



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