Seabird Fowling in the Faroe Islands
Although we, the Faroese, usually refer to times prior to the heydays of the fish industry as "the old peasant society" the term is used with certain reservations. The location of the islands, their environment and size only offered possibilities of relatively simple agriculture mainly concerned with sheep farming. Animal husbandry was restricted to whatever resources were available. Farms, large and small, kept some cattle for the sake of milk along with poultry for meat and eggs. There were limited conditions for grain cultivation, harvests often failing - about every three years on the average.
Still, the Faroes had other resources. The waters around the islands are rich in fish, whale and seal. Bird cliffs, promontories, islets and precipices are nesting places for many species of seabirds. It is therefore not surprising that coastal fishing, fowling and whale hunting were quite a significant part of traditional Faroese working life.
There is a great number of special hunting methods requiring appropriate specialized hunting gear - and of these the most distinctive Faroese tool is the fowling pole. As the name suggests the pole is a long rod with two large arms or branches between which a net is suspended, almost like a triangular lacrosse stick. This tool existed in two variants since times of old: "fyglingarstong" and "fleygingarstong", the fowler's pole and the pole-net.
Fyglingarstong (fowler’s pole) was a shorter pole with a larger net and branches. It was used in bird cliffs where fowlers rappelled down to narrow ledges on well-nigh vertical cliff walls. The fowler moved towards guillemots and razorbills brooding on the ledges. He was able to get quite close to the birds as they unwillingly left their eggs or chicks, catching up to ten birds in his net each time. The method was quite effective but deemed to have a negative effect on the bird population and so it was abandoned. Eggs and chicks were sometimes hurled over the edge, although the fowler only intended to catch adult birds. As far as I am aware, fyglingarstong was used for the last time in the cliffs of the island of Skúvoy around 1925.
Fleygingarstong (pole-net) is depicted on the two stamps. It was longer than fyglingarstong and had shorter arms and a smaller net. The pole itself was 6 cubits long (3.76m), made of pine. The branching arms varied in size, from 2 to 3 cubits long (1.25m - 1.88m) and were kept apart by means of a small crossbar with holes, called "horns". The arms and horns were made of stronger and more flexible wood than the pole. In places where the fowler rappelled down cliffs in ropes, the pole was often fitted with an iron spike at the lower end so the fowler would be able to use it for support during the descent.
When hunting with fleygingarstong, the fowler sat down in a certain place close to the cliff edge, or rappelled down to a convenient spot. Places where the fowler could sit and hunt are called "sessur" (seat). With the pole resting on his legs, the fowler waited for a bird - puffin, guillemot or razorbill - to fly close by. He then swung the pole upwards behind the bird catching it in the net with a twisting motion. The captured prey was quickly hauled in, freed from the net and killed by breaking its neck. The fowler then stuffed it under a woolen strap around his body and resumed his former position.
Fowling with a pole-net is far more sustainable than other fowling methods. The fowler only catches one bird at a time and, moreover, he is able to sort out certain birds, for example puffins carrying small fry for their chicks. In addition, maiming birds by shooting is avoided. It has always been forbidden to use firearms in and near bird cliffs.
The two stamps show two different variants of fowling with fleygingarstong. The first consists in fowling in cliffs, the fowler either sitting at the cliff edge or rappelling down the cliff.
The second stamp illustrates "omanfleyg" fowling. This was done using traditional Faroese boats, preferably with a fowler at each end of the boat with a fleygingarstong. Guillemots and razorbills were mainly caught this way when soaring down (hence "oman") to rest on the water or to catch fish.
The last couple of decades have seen a sharp decline in seabird populations which is the reason why puffins, guillemots and razorbills are no longer caught with fleygingarstong. The decline is due to lack of small marine fish on which seabirds feed, resulting in pervasive brood reduction. On the other hand, there is an abundance of fulmars, an invasive seabird species, which is being hunted. Fulmars are disliked by fowlers because they tends to displace other seabirds from cliffs and skerries.
Anker Eli Petersen
Traditions of Sea Bird Fowling in the Faroes: An Ecological Basis for Sustained Fowling
Ornis Scandinavica (Scandinavian Journal of Ornithology)