Wicklow People

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Studying the habits of geese and ducks

Sean Kent leads a wonderfully balanced life, combining life on the family farm in Ballyrichard with his other career as a member of staff at Univerisity College Dublin.He has forged an unusual, but very practical, connection between the psychology department of an academic institution and the hilly fields above Arklow.

Sean Kent leads a wonderfully balanced life, combining life on the family farm in Ballyrichard with his other career as a member of staff at Univerisity College Dublin.

He has forged an unusual, but very practical, connection between the psychology department of an academic institution and the hilly fields above Arklow.

The link is provided by the ducks, geese and occasional poultry that are the speciality of the holding, with its Georgian farmhouse.

Studying the various fowl and their group dynamics has provided the raw material for a series of papers circulated around the world in learned journals.

And, unlike colleagues who work with the laboratory rats or mice which are the staple species of the research world, he has the occasional pleasure of eating his subjects.

These days, he admits, the lure of the college campus has faded somewhat and he is happy to punch in just a day a week, one term a year, at the campus in Belfield.

There is, after all, plenty to do around Ballyrichard, the farm that he took over from an uncle back in the mid-eighties.

The place has become a landmark for observant motorists passing by along the N11 that connects Arklow to Dublin.

The first batch of geese arrived almost two decades ago and comprised 14 birds, the advance guard of a flock that has grown to around the 400 mark..

What Sean does not know about geese by now is hardly worth knowing. Between the demands of practical animal husbandry and observations of scientific study he has them sussed.

Like their wild cousins on the Slobs of Wexford or like the Friesian cows of the Ballyrichard dairy herd, they are grazers.

They enjoy free run of the meadows around the Georgian house, which dates from the 1790s, and the grass provides most of their diet, with grain supplements.

They may live up to 35 years, and as the man from U.C.D. has discovered, they have quite intricate social patterns.

The flock is, in fact, not a single unit but actually ten different groupings, each taking up its own farm out-building.

Sean's observations have taught him that the females in each group tend to lay their eggs around at the same time.

Their production cycle has been timed and he reckons that, in season, these fine ladies produce one of their impressively big eggs every 47 hours - not 48, mark you, but 47.

The laying season has just begun, which means that their owner now spends much of his day prowling around the ditches beside the fields and poking under the shrubs in the front lawn.

The ducks come up with the goods more steadily throughout the year, providing a regular supply of chicks for producers around the country.

The young, with their yellow down, are dispatched to customers in Kerry, Cork, Westmeath or wherever by rail.

The variety of choice is the Aylesbury, a big bird whose white feathers make it very similar to the geese with whom they share the farm in Arklow.

They spend the days looking for slugs to eat and pass the nights in a roughly converted silage pit, guarded from foxes by an easy-going collie dog called Bing.

Hatching the eggs - whether from goose or duck - is the tricky part of the enterprise, requiring specialist equipment, exact temperatures and scrupulous hygiene.

Given the requirement for cleanliness, it is not desirable for the person who oversees the banks of incubators and hatcheries to be splashing around in cow dung.

That is why Janet Kent, herself a graduate in zoology, takes charge of the milking parlour. The family holding also produces sheep and beef cattle..

Sean, the agri-academic, professes a fondness for fowl, a fondness probably springing from his New Ross childhood in County Wexford.

The Kents had hens and sold the eggs, though they made no claims to the sort of free range approach he has adopted since migrating to County Wicklow.

He claims to know many of his geese individually, since they have shared this piece of land with him for so long.

Still, he is not so attached as to be averse to a good roast gander, and he is delighted to share advice on hanging the carcases, along with cooking tips.

Giving the living fowl a measure of freedom has allowed him to compile a fascinating record of their lives, making Ballyrichard as both a real farm and a place of study.


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