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Kevin Myers: When one of our ghastly bird-killing savages is caught, we will see how much support they have

The bogs are frozen hard, so the snipe are in the fields. One of the many pleasures of this deep winter weather is how the birds come to us; our hedgerows are dense with flocks of refugee redwings from Murmansk and Archangel, and snipe arc through the air in little flights of three or four, in the quest for food in fresh habitats.

The snipe is the unintended author of one of the most commonly-used English words in other languages: "sniper". It is good to see that the Department of the Environment this week placed a ban on shooting it, or any wildbird, while the freeze lasts.

Sportsmen will of course obey the ban; people who shoot are generally conservationists. The argument for shooting wildbirds is that nature provides a surplus, and a gun culling merely does what will happen anyway to birds who fail to find a territory or a mate in the spring. I have shot (fresh air, mostly) but I will never shoot anything again. I do not feel easy slaying even a man-reared pheasant and even if my eye were true and my hand steady enough, I could never bring myself to shoot a snipe. They are winged perfection.

It might seem odd to find room in one's heart at this terrible time to be depressed by the latest deliberate killing of golden eagle, but I am, and deeply so.

That a full 20 eagles have been poisoned in what is still a young programme suggests that we are not faced with a couple of demented bird haters, but a fairly numerous group of barbaric hillbillies who know almost nothing about nature, or the land they live on.

And this figure of 20 birds killed might be conservative. According to the splendid Lorcan O'Toole, of the Golden Eagle Trust, just four birds were released in the autumn with satellite tags, and four without (tagging being expensive).

The latest dead bird was one of the four tagged -- in other words, a 25pc fatality-rate within just four months of release. But what has happened to the untagged and therefore untraceable birds?

And what will happen in this long hard winter, as raptors are forced to scavenge on old carrion in the fields, in which the ghastly bird-killing savages can lay their toxins?

The pattern of poisoning across Kerry and Donegal is clear, consistent and unmistakable. The only way of knowing how much support the poisoners are getting in their communities will finally come when one of them is caught. If he is lynched by his neighbours, well and good.

But if we start hearing weaselly excuses about the damage being done by the eagles, and what a decent fellow the culprit really is, and if local TDs start talking in Tibetan, then we know that we are touching upon a silent and invisible localised consensus. And this will probably run on the lines that any wildlife that comes between the farmer and profit may justly be killed.

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To be sure, if it exists at all, it is a localised consensus, and doesn't represent what most farmers today think or feel about the land they work on, not least because they detest the use of random poison, for all the moral reasons that any decent person would. But the fact remains that the eagle-project, if not yet foundering, is already in trouble. Which brings me to this uncomfortable question: is the poisoning of eagles merely the very extreme end of a spectrum of alienation from the beasts and the birds of the field that is commonplace amongst the people of Ireland?

Butchers and supermarkets and restaurant menus across the EU are now full of winter-game -- teal, mallard, pochard, partridge, pheasant, pigeon and rabbit, while market-stalls are festooned with feather and fur. But in Ireland, if meat doesn't come from a farm, it's almost suspect. What ordinary restaurant or butcher's shop in Ireland routinely offers rabbit or pigeon, which are free-range, healthy, fat-free and cost merely the price of a shotgun cartridge and a pleasant day on a hillside? We have vast natural larders, from the Blue Stacks to the Reeks, the Comeraghs to the Slieve Blooms. Why do we not routinely feast on the wild provender of mountain, meadow and glen?

Culture, of course, which is usually made not by deliberate social design but by the unintended and unseen habits of communities over time.

And it's too easy to say that the landlords alienated the Irish people from the land, for legal gin-traps broke the legs of Lincolnshire poachers, and Norman gamekeepers disembowelled English peasants who stalked the king's deer.

And so it was in France and Germany and the Low Countries -- those whose names began with 'de', 'von' or 'van' oppressed and robbed the poor, and kept the hare, venison and wild-duck for themselves.

So, I don't know why there is this strange and unique gulf between the Irish people and the actual land they inhabit; but I merely ask -- are the murdered eagles of Kerry and Donegal not simply the most extreme symptom of it?

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