State papers: Otter hunting beyond the pale for Charles Haughey

‘I agree that there should be no licences issued and this decision should be announced’

Charlie Haughey may have enjoyed a reputation as a master of rural pursuits, but otter hunting was a step too far for him.

The late taoiseach liked to dabble in countryside activities such as hunting, fishing and shooting when he was at home on his Abbeville estate in Kinsealy. But when his colleague Brendan Daly asked him to introduce a total ban on otter hunting, he readily agreed.

Otters have been a protected species since 1976 but a small number of licences to permit otter hunting were issued up until 1990. The niche pursuit was mostly practised under licence by four hunts in the southwest of the country. The water-based animals were hunted by special packs of otter hounds with the Bride Valley, Bride View and Cork City Otter Hunts, all in Cork and the Desmond Otter Hunt in Co Limerick.

Daly, then minister of State at the department of finance, wrote to taoiseach Charlie Haughey in February 1990 asking for help on the “vexed question” of otter hunting. He said licences were traditionally granted to the four hunts to allow them to hunt otters from April to October. He had to make a decision on whether to grant licences before the end of March.


“While the numbers of otters reported killed in these organised hunts are not large and could not be claimed to have a serious effect on the otter population, both my predecessors and I have been under considerable pressure to discontinue the issue of licences for otter hunting,” he wrote.

Nine otters killed

He said the issuing of licences probably breached the State’s obligations under the Berne Convention on Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. “I feel that licences should not be issued, particularly with the present emphasis on the protection of wildlife and the environment.”

According to an information note provided by Daly, nine otters were killed by the hunts in 1989. “The otter is not a pest like the fox. It is therefore difficult to argue in favour of the practice of hunting,” the note stated. However, it predicted that a ban would be “roundly condemned by the hunting fraternity who would see such a decision as a threat to their activities and a further encroachment on their sport”.

Haughey added a handwritten note at the bottom of the correspondence, saying: “I agree that there should be no licences issued and this decision should be announced.” Licences were suspended in 1990 and 10 years later the hunting or killing of an otter became a criminal offence.

In 2019, three men were fined a total of €1,100 for illegally killing an otter at Ballynatray Estate in Co Waterford. The man who shot the otter told the court it had been an accident as he had mistaken it for a fox. (File: 2021/1/344)

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times