When not pursuing her career as a vet or role with the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management, Aoife Bakonyi Byrne is renowned in hunting circles as a side-saddle sibling
With two inspirational sporting Dianas in her family, Aoife Bakonyi Byrne discovered her passion for hunting as a child in Ireland. Today, when she is not working as a vet or for the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management, she is known for turning out side-saddle with her sister.
Sporting Dianas are seriously sporting ladies offering advice and encouragement. For more, Aoife Bakonyi Byrne’s sister, Diana of the Chase cum racing stylist Sarah Kate Byrne, is also a Field sporting Diana. Plus for Julia Mitchell, sporting adventures across the globe have taught her the value of good company. And Claire Sadler is BASC’s first female vice-chairman and is keen to encourage the next generation.
AOIFE BAKONYI BYRNE
An idyllic childhood in Ireland and two inspirational Sporting Dianas in my life, my mother as well as my maternal grandmother, left little room not to take up sport with a passion. I grew up with an older brother and younger sister on a small hobby farm in Ireland, surrounded by a menagerie of animals. My father had grown up next door on a stud farm that had been a deer park in the 19th century. Further generations of my father’s family repurposed the land into a successful stud farm standing stallions such as Errigal (sire to the world famous King of Diamonds) and Bahrain, who sired numerous international show jumpers.
By all accounts my granny was an excellent shot: wild geese and snipe in County Mayo were her speciality. When she wasn’t shooting she was fly-fishing for salmon in the waters of the famed Owenduff river. My mum, on the other hand, was a keen horsewoman. Her maiden name is Cafferkey, an Anglicisation of Nic Eacmharcaigh, meaning ‘daughter of the horse rider’, so it is little surprise she bore three horse-mad children.
My mother’s passion was for hunting, which she clearly passed on to me. My earliest hunting memory is attending the Carlow Farmers’ Hunt children’s meet on a Shetland called Tiny. Owning only a two-horse trailer we were restricted to meets within hacking distance of home, so that the three Byrne girls could all turn up at the meet. Our mother must have said a silent prayer as my sister and I took on every obstacle we met. Those who have had the adrenaline rush of hunting in Ireland will understand this is no mean feat for young children on wily ponies.
These days I turn out both astride and side-saddle and I have had many wonderful days visiting packs in both Britain and Ireland. The novelty factor of my sister, Sarah Kate, and I being side-saddle siblings has yet to wear thin and brings some wonderful invitations. Rumour has it that our Charlton Hunt invitation came on the basis that we were Irish, sisters and could turn out sideways. Many of our most memorable Irish hunting weekends have been organised by the legendary Aidan O’Connell, which tend to be a marathon of unforgettable hunting with an Irish Hunt Ball thrown in.
I have completed a side-saddle steeplechase, the Dianas of the Chase race over old Leicestershire turf, on three occasions. Never ‘in it to win it’ I was more than happy to bring up the rear, completing the three-mile, 15-fence course at a leisurely hunting pace rather than at a flat-out gallop. Chosen as one of 10 ladies to participate in an inaugural side-saddle flat race over 10 furlongs held at Wincanton, I finished a respectable fourth – even more of an achievement considering my mount and I had met for the first time on the morning of the race.
Immersed in animal husbandry from a young age and with a love of science, observing our local vet saving my mother’s mare with colic made me determined to pursue a career as a veterinary surgeon. Taking an unconventional route I studied at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Budapest. While studying I met Péter, a fellow equine vet, who became my husband. He introduced me to the delights of roe buck stalking, the red deer rut and wild boar hunting in south-west Hungary, the origin of many a CIC world record trophy.
Graduating in 2007, I undertook an internship at an equine hospital on The Curragh, spent a stud season learning about equine embryo transfer in Argentina and England, and worked in an equine ophthalmology clinic. The next step was settling into ambulatory practice in Norfolk. While there I gained my certificate in advanced veterinary practice and became membership secretary of The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM).
The objectives of VAWM are to promote the sensible management of British wildlife in order to promote or sustain the health and vigour of wild species. I help to spread the word, recruit new members and manage our social media presence as well as helping to organise our annual hunting AGM, which enables our members to visit a new pack each year – a role that enables me to mix business and pleasure perfectly. A new career challenge required a move to an equine practice in Gloucestershire. It was an easy decision relinquishing Norfolk for new environs that happened to offer hunting with two of the world’s most esteemed packs, the Berkeley and the Beaufort.
TOP TIP: Go hunting in Ireland at least once in your life – you won’t regret it.