Randal Plunkett III: The Hunter and the Hunted
by Niklas Göransson
Lord Randal Plunkett talks about the hidden war in the Dunsany forests – how he cleansed the nature reserve surrounding his castle of poachers.
– I knew the plants would come back once the land had been allowed to recover – and that this would increase the insect population. More bugs mean more of the predators who feed upon them, and so on. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the diversity in species. Lots of different animals were returning, many of which I’d never seen before. It took me several years to figure out half of them. I’d see birds I had no idea existed. I was suddenly finding beetles never discovered in Ireland before. It felt very exciting because the truth of the matter is that we were on an adventure.
The Dunsany estate comprises 1,700 acres, 750 of which have been left to rewild. The remaining 950 are occupied by tillage farms growing wheat, beans, hemp, and rapeseed. As acknowledged in a nomination at the Farm for Nature Awards – courtesy of the Irish Wildlife Trust – the greater biodiversity has benefited the crop yields of surrounding farms.
– The more insects, bees, and birds – the more life in general – you have, the more pollination there will be. And that’s not me making a wild claim here; life creates pollination. I have one nearby farmer who’s very open-minded and he suddenly noticed an improvement in his crops. He first thought it was his agricultural skills and rich lands paying off. But upon learning about the rewilding project next door, he started thinking that perhaps it wasn’t him at all: that it was, in fact, the benefits of rewilding. This is something I believe will become more obvious in due time.
When timber harvesting ceased at Dunsany and the forest was allowed to fend for itself, it brought in additional wildlife. Organically decaying deadwood offers a habitat to everything from fungi to woodpeckers. As the beef-fattening land was vacated and left to grow wild, clumps in the grass became home to hares, insects, and worms.
– When the soil comes to life in the spring, plants grow and flower – and then the season changes and they slowly fall. For example, last year, the grass in my front meadow reached six feet and stood tall during June and July. As is often the case in Ireland, the rains came around August. When this happens, the grass falls on itself and starts going brown. By September, the downpour grows more frequent. Come October, the grass begins to break down; like salad left in the fridge for too long, it turns into that sludgy stuff on the bottom of the bag. The dead grass decomposes and creates clumps that let in air and provides cavities for animals to hide and nest in.
In the absence of grazing cattle, plus the reintroduction of worms and other earth-dwellers, the soil is not as compressed as on farmland. Consequently, Dunsany has been less impacted by floods and heat waves than the surrounding areas.
– You have all these blades of grass dying on top of each other, creating a layering effect. So, when the rains come, it doesn’t spread itself out equally but runs between the clumps. There is this weird effect where the water is split up and redirected. It runs through all the layers of grass – which means that when rain is pouring down, you don’t get that sudden rush of water straight into the soil. Instead, it filters through, which creates a process where rainwater dissipates faster.
The underlying idea is that if given the opportunity to live, grow, and die, the grass will serve as constant protection for the soil.
– Without nutrition being forced through the grass, trying to escalate growth for maximised cattle breeding, its root structure reaches ever deeper. Nor are you killing the grass by over-harvesting, so it’s constantly revitalised. The soil is built up because when the grass dies in wintertime, it becomes part of the top layer. Around February, it looks like it’s been completely cut and harvested, except for these clumps.
In springtime, one can see the first signs of new grass beginning to push through what was just dead.– Suddenly, these bright green little spears emerge from the clumps. Everything that dies merges with the surface layer – this rich topsoil everybody talks about. But it’s becoming increasingly scarce these days due to something called soil erosion. Today, we harvest the earth. We plough the soil, which breaks it up. We’re not ever allowing things to form and rot on the surface naturally.
What about manure?
– Sure, you can throw some animal faeces on there, but that’s only one element in the cycle of a natural plant breakdown. And remember that slugs and worms will eat the dead grass, breaking down the plant matter, and their excess feeds the soil. When you have a constant state of new plant matter forming on top of the old, you’re building soil. So, I’m not just protecting what’s already there, I’m creating more soil – the very opposite of erosion.
In the absence of pesticides, there’s also been a massive increase in insects.
– I remember driving with my dad as a kid, and the car windscreen would be covered in smashed bugs. Dunsany has plenty of insects these days, but if I drive to the local town… I might get one or two? Which is pretty shocking. And that’s the thing: I’m surrounded by people spraying chemicals everywhere. I believe this will ultimately lead to rewilding becoming something which has to be done all over the place. There’s an aesthetic demand – but also, environmentally speaking, it will become a problem long-term. So, I’m essentially giving all kinds of wildlife an area that feels like a refuge.
Since Randal took his seat, the rewilded area has been declared a nature reserve. His next step was to begin actively enforcing the hunting ban on the Dunsany property. For as long as anyone can remember, the estate’s forests have been plagued by poachers.
– Have you ever heard of The Iceman? He was a mafia hitman; one of the most vicious killers you’ve ever seen. They made a documentary about him called The Iceman Confessions – I strongly recommend you watch it. He looked like someone who sold cars and had a seemingly normal life with a wife and children, but then he could just switch into the coldest of cold spirits. He tells this wonderful story about a confrontation with these three guys who were going to rough him up, but he decided that he wasn’t going to take it this time. So, he started doing some serious damage.
In March 1988, Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski was convicted for – among other things – five murders but is believed to have committed many more. The police gave Kuklinski his nickname after discovering that he’d kept a corpse on ice for several years to confuse the time of death.
– Poaching had been a constant during my father’s time but when I took charge, I decided it would no longer be tolerated. I mean, we always resented it, but I was willing to stand up and say: ‘I don’t want to live in a world where this is part of my reality. It ends now.’ I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I started by finding the patterns of where and when the poachers turned up. I soon learned that the best time to shoot deer is either at dawn or as they emerge from the forest in the evening. So, I began patrolling at sunrise and sunset.
Judging by Randal’s depiction of hunters in his recent motion picture, The Green Sea, I suspect that not all of these interactions were mutually cordial.
– I harassed them. I hate to say it, but that’s what I did. I started recognising the people I was looking for; they couldn’t even park without being confronted. It was often very dark, so I’d just pull up behind them with high beams straight in their faces. All they’d hear was metal music coming out of a black car and then see this dark figure wielding a camera, taping them. Very voyeur. I’m a filmmaker, so I looked for something dramatic to drive home my message: ‘You are not welcome here.’ Actually, I took a page from the Scientologists. You see, they never break the law – they just film and take notes. That’s one of their major weapons of harassment.
This approach – referred to as ‘Fair Game’ – was devised by L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, to combat the organisation’s enemies.
– Obviously, it’s rather unnerving to have some stranger all dressed in black watching you, writing down your licence plate, and taking pictures of your car. They’d come up, shielding their eyes from the glare, and be like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m doing nothing. What are you doing?’ Which usually made them super-conscious: ‘Eh, nothing!’ ‘Well then, what were you doing with my gate over there?’ And they just gaped, ‘That’s your gate?’ – ‘It is my gate. What are you up to? You’ve come to shoot my deer, haven’t you?’
When the poachers started coming earlier, Randal followed suit. They also came later at night, so he extended his evening patrols.
– I grew increasingly hostile. They’d turn up and park on the side of the road… boom! I’d be behind them just minutes later. Some did not take this very well and tried to intimidate me. They vowed to beat me up. They threatened to cut me a Chelsea smile. But I didn’t give a shit even if they were holding rifles; I’d walk straight up to them. I believe my perceived lack of fear made them uncomfortable because they’re probably not used to people confronting them so aggressively at six o’clock in the morning. Obviously, this is rural Ireland and not America, where I might actually have been shot. Although, saying that, Slane – which is another castle down the road – had a warden who was murdered.
In 1990, after catching two poachers on the property, the twenty-seven-year-old gamekeeper of nearby Slane Castle was shot five times and then buried in the woods.
– The month of September saw the horse hunts start coming in, so I followed them around on the forest roads. I wasn’t always very, shall we say, gracious towards their mounts either. I wouldn’t particularly care about shooting past the horses and making them buck. Because – quite frankly – should someone fall off and break their neck, I simply wouldn’t care. Not the most vegan thing to say, admittedly, but I figured that the only one at risk of serious injury would be the rider. And who cares about them? So, one could say that I promoted an air of hostility. They pushed back, and so I pushed even harder.
Were you on the receiving end of any hostilities?
– One of our windows was shot out by a gun, and I had my car tires slashed. Someone killed a deer and yanked it over an old wall, pulling it down. Gunshots kept going off all the time. But I do wish to stress one point: I tried to be diplomatic initially. But it didn’t work. So, I started involving local law enforcement. At first, they didn’t want to charge anyone; there were probably some personal connections. Finally, I started pulling out lawyers and forced the police to act. I would telephone the station and say, ‘There’s a hunt going on – be prepared because you’ll hear from me within the hour.’ In 2019 I called them thirty-six times, and the year before I think it was forty-two.
As the feud became public knowledge, Randal started receiving subtle support.
– I had spies passing me their timetables, so I’d turn up at their secret rendezvous point with a map and a signed letter from my lawyer saying, ‘Don’t set foot on this property or there will be lawsuits.’ Judging by their reaction, I was the last person they expected or wanted to see. I also made it abundantly clear to them that I was willing to give up a lot of my time to make their day terrible. I’d say, ‘I’m a gentleman of leisure; my enjoyment is my job. And I really enjoy irritating you.’ They grew quite angry with me, so I began threatening them. ‘I live in a castle and I’m very, very rich. The money I’ll pay my lawyers to destroy you is the leftover change I’d otherwise have spent on a holiday.’ Now, all of that is an absolute lie, but I’m very good at lying.
To drive home this impression, Randal orchestrated a marketing campaign of sorts. For starters, he had an impressive new gate installed.
– Although we were struggling to pay for electricity, I upheld a façade of endless strength. I’d pretend to have mad cash that I spent like a stupid person. And whenever I saw a member of government, I took a picture with them and posted it online. I’d show it to the poachers: ‘You see this guy? Really good friend of mine. If I want, I can give him a ring and you’ll have the police chief himself breathing down your neck.’ I’d even adopt somewhat of a conspiratorial flair – like, ‘You must realise that holding power for six hundred years requires having one’s fingers in people you don’t even know exist.’
Randal’s ancestors first appeared on the British Isles in 1066 as part of the invading force that wrought the Norman Conquest upon England. By 1432, they had moved on to Ireland and been installed at Dunsany. Except for a few temporary evacuations pertaining to foreign invasions and land reforms, the Plunketts have been there ever since. Dunsany Castle is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited building in the entire country.
– I told them, ‘We’ve been here for six centuries. You do not live with me; it is I who allow you to dwell here.’ I knew putting up such an outrageously arrogant attitude would be so diabolically loathsome that they’d hate me for it. But simultaneously, they were terrified. What if I was telling the truth? It’s so easy to fall into the land of conspiracy. That’s when I began to win the psychological war because they felt marginalised and helpless. ‘This lunatic has both money and power. The police are in his pocket, and he won’t hesitate to use them.’ It’s like playing cards: you have to bluff. They’re too damn ignorant to know that filmmakers make no money. I wanted these people finished, so I pushed and pushed. The worse they threatened me, the more it benefited me. Not only was it motivating me to go at them even harder, but it also provided some drama. And the drama is what rallied people to my side.
Over time, Randal started winning people over. Nowadays, he has a score of volunteers – and not only for covert observations.
– No one likes bullies. Nobody wants to see someone be intimidated. So, now it’s not just me chasing these people; I have helpers all around keeping an eye out. Strange car sighted? They take a picture. See, this is what we have come to. I am a creature of their creation because they pushed me so far that extreme measures were required. It’s like that scene in Batman… I’m talking about the old Batman here, where The Joker says, ‘You made me, remember? You dropped me into that thing full of chemicals.’ I felt like I was The Joker. I can be very assertive when I want something and will stop at nothing until I have it. That’s how I turned the tide. They’ve essentially stopped coming now, except for a few hard-nosed bastards. Wars are not won by the strongest but by the most consistent.
Perhaps it bears mentioning here that the Plunkett family motto is ‘Festina Lente’: ‘Make Haste Slowly’. Now, most people are probably sympathetic to banning hunting in a private nature reserve. However, Randal also adopts injured foxes from wildlife rescue organisations, then rehabilitates and releases them into Dunsany – actively increasing the population.
– There have always been foxes at Dunsany. The fox is a territorial creature, which means there will never be more of them than an area can sustain. Foxes forced together will fight; it’s one of the problems I’ve had when looking after them. They must be kept somewhat separated, or it might lead to fights over food. So, I could release a thousand foxes in that field out there, but the truth is that it can only hold maybe four or five at most. So, I’m not worried. There has never been a time in history when Dunsany was overrun by foxes.
Won’t your adoptees be preying on your neighbours’ animals?
– People in the sheep-farming industry typically accuse me of, ‘Oh, but what will you do if they kill some sheep?’ I had sheep for three or four years and never lost a single one to foxes, so I’d say those fears are exaggerated. Sure, there’s always a risk that someone might lose a chicken or two. Foxes are clever scavengers who will take a trapped bird if given the opportunity – but they are not great hunters. Nevertheless, it’s not my responsibility to protect your poultry; put up a bigger fence if you’re so concerned. And I’d obviously be happy to apologise if you can prove that it was my fox that took your chicken.
Would it be fair to say that you’d be much further into your film career if you hadn’t proclaimed yourself warden of the woods?
– Had I just let things carry on, I imagine I’d be enjoying even less peace than I do now. There would’ve been a lot more problems. Of course, I could’ve used the time I’ve spent chasing people around the forest for my own pursuits, but the truth is that life wouldn’t have been much different. This rot happened due to my grandfather falling ill and losing control over a large area. Then my father got sick very quickly, and there were long periods when no one was around. The moment people start taking advantage of you, they’ll keep going until they hit a wall. I might have had more time to advance my film career, but I would’ve faced worse trouble out here. I imagine we’d have seen more criminality – and by that, I mean real crime – had I not been so very totalitarian in my response.
Have you recovered from the worst of your financial woes?
– It’s not that life is so much better – rather, it hasn’t grown worse. Things have slightly improved because we have more fiscal consistency. We survived by cutting costs and being frugal. At the time, my mother spent a lot of her personal money: all her investments and savings. She was regularly selling her belongings to cover our bills. But then we finally got better tenants, and more revenue started coming in. Meaning, they paid on their own accord instead of us having to chase them down every month. That allowed us to be a bit more budgeted. But if I’m being sincere, we’ve always lived only a short distance from collapse. Surely you can relate? Living check-to-mouth. I’m making assumptions here but, being self-employed, you probably don’t have a lot of savings.
That sounds about right.
– Neither do I. I live my life constantly swimming out to sea, knowing that I’ll never be able to come back to the same shore. We will always walk forwards, head held high. There might be holes in our socks – but boy, do those shoes shine! And that’s the way things are done here at Dunsany: worn-out socks covered by shiny shoes. We’ve created a situation in which life is extremely difficult. And it will never stop, not as long as I live within an estate like this. Castles are like stone babies that never grow up. I don’t know if you have kids, but infants are hard work. They need to be spoon-fed.
How is this applicable to a castle?
– For instance, every time it rains, I have to check the roof. I go around spot-checking. I must be aware of and vigilant about everything and that’s what I was always fearful of – the fact I’d never have the freedom to just say, ‘Fuck it. It’s raining. I’m going to roll over in my bed and not care.’ No such luck, I’m afraid. And the notion of ever having lots of money… I know it’s never going to happen.
Despite Randal holding a great deal of wealth in his house, the Plunkett dynasty’s motto is that no one is allowed to sell what they did not bring.
– There are lots of valuables here, but they do not belong to me. None of it is mine to sell. Legally, I could do whatever I wanted; but spiritually speaking? No. I’ve sat many a time with my mother, with all the lights switched off, wrapped in a jacket because it was too expensive for us to turn on the heating. During some of the darkest periods, the temperature in the kitchen was around six degrees Celsius (42.8°F). That’s pretty cold for a kitchen, let me tell you. I slept wearing a hat and two pairs of trousers.
This conversation took place over Skype one evening in August, and Randal was indeed wearing a winter jacket inside.
– But you know what? This changes nothing. I will live like an animal if I have to, but I’ll never bow down. I will not crumble; my resolve is bulletproof. My job is seven days a week and there are no days off. Christmas for me means wartime. While everyone else is enjoying dinner with their families, I’m out on patrol. It won’t ever stop, and I accept my task because this is the path of sacrifice. But once you come to terms with the fact that you don’t have to make those decisions yourself, it’s actually quite exciting.
– Because you’re nothing but a cog in a much greater piece of machinery. Life becomes a lot simpler. A decade ago – yes, life was very stressful. We had our ups and downs, like with anything. But truth be told, the abyss was never far away. It’s always just sat there, ready to swallow us at any time. So, we must plan and fight and do what we do because I don’t believe that we are, in reality, much different from anyone else in modern society: always just two checks away from destruction.
Considering that Randal is at heart a filmmaker, his conservational efforts and associated tribulations remind me of the famous Joseph Campbell quote, ‘You are the Hero of your own Story.’
– Absolutely. That’s a very accurate description because everyone wants to be the hero of their own film. I’m fighting for what I believe is right. I might not always have been perfect or successful, but I don’t think my actions were ever truly unjust. So, I feel as if I’m championing this idea. And like a true film protagonist, I started out alone and then had to fight. But somewhere along the way – say, the second act – I found some companions to help me. And I imagine we’ll have a last stand somewhere down the line. We’re not there just yet, but it is surely coming. We’ve certainly reached the first part of the third act.