The Isle of Man lies between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the Irish Sea. The main island is about 30 miles from north to south and 10 from west to east, with a central mountain range and wooded glens that fall away to the sea. Peel Castle stands on St Patrick’s Island off the west coast. Castle Rushen, in Castletown, is located on the south-east coast on the main island.
The bird bones from Peel Castle were mostly medieval and post-medieval in date, with a few from earlier periods. Those from Castle Rushen were from between the 16th and late 19th/20th centuries. Most were from the two main domestic species: domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) and Greylag Goose (Anser anser). Some goose bones appeared to be unusually short and it is suggested that this is a dwarf variety akin to that kept on Shetland during the Dark Ages.
Wild birds were less frequent at the sites, although their presence provides interesting information about the habits of the Manx people. Gulls, in particular, provide opportunities for serious trade and exploitation by humans. They are known to have been netted and then fattened during the winter months in the poultry yard – something which also helped to dissipate the strong fishy taste. Black-headed gulls, known as puets, were held in high esteem during the 17th century and were eaten as a delicacy after being fed on bullock’s liver or with corn and curds from the dairy. Some gull bones from the excavations showed evidence of knife and skewer marks, and it is suggested that some form of pinioning is possible. Crane (grus grus) and Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) were also found heavily scraped and scored by human implements at Castle Rushen.
It is suggested that the pigeon bones found during the excavations were the remains of wild rock doves (Columba livia) collected from the southwestern cliffs of the island. These were reported during the early 1800s by visitors to the island, and were said to be good eating. It is likely that their extinction on the Isle of Man was partly due to over-harvesting. Other cliff-nesters such as the common guillemot (Uria aalge) and puffin (Fratercula arctica) are still present, but are not as abundant as they once were.
The Isle of Man had a well-established trade in birds and their products, attested to both by the accounts of early writers and the finds from Peel Castle and Castle Rushen. Harvesting contributed to driving some elsewhere to breed, others to extinction. It also reduced the breeding populations of others such as the guillemot and Manx shearwater.
Reference: Thorne, C. T. 1997. Past human exploitation of birds on the Isle of Man. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 7: 292-297