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Falconry: the sport of kings and princes

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Lure of the Wild

Falconry has been the sport of kings and princes for more than 2,000 years and its attraction is still going strong

T he falconer gently removes the hood from his charge’s head and the bird immediately knows it is ‘time to play’. In an effortless push from the fist, the peregrine falcon is in the sky and beginning its 1,000ft climb until it is circling high above the moor. As soon as the dogs flush the grouse from its hiding place the peregrine begins its sensational stoop, reaching speeds of up to 200mph. For the patient falconer, who may have spent a whole day with his bird without a single sniff of a quarry, this is the moment of truth. In just a few scintillating seconds the falcon falls out of the sky like a rock before unfolding its wings and converting its speed into a rapier strike against the hapless, fleeing grouse.

‘It is simply a huge privilege just to be a witness to this magnificent spectacle,’ says Nicholas Kester, president of the British Falconers’ Club, the oldest club of its kind in the UK.

‘Until you have seen it for yourself it is hard to believe that a relatively small bird can bring such deadly power from the sky onto its quarry.’

In Britain there are now 5,000 established falconers who regularly hunt with falcons and birds of prey. Recent curbs on foxhunting and the growing regulation of other game sports have forced estate owners to look for alternative ways to hunt prey and keep the visiting public entertained.

And what they are discovering is that falconry, the oldest game sport of them all, is also the most rewarding.

The roots of falconry can be traced back to the rulers of Mesopotamia, roughly the region of modern Syria and Iraq, more than 2,000 years ago when falcons were carried into battle by horsemen. The annals of the explorer Marco Polo record that by the time of the warrior king Kublai Khan falconry was well established. Marco Polo wrote of him: ‘He takes with him full 10,000 falconers and some 500 gerfalcons, besides peregrines, sakers, and other hawks in great numbers, and goshawks able to fly at the water-fowl.’

In Europe falconry was the supreme sport of kings. During the Norman era (in the 11th century) no self-respecting baron would be seen out of his castle without a hawk or falcon on his fist. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts King Harold taking a falcon and hounds when he visited William of Normandy a few years before the fateful Battle of Hastings. And when he conquered England William brought with him Flemish falconers.

‘The falcon flies high and then make its stoop before making its descent. The hawk is unleashed from the fist towards the quarry.’

In the centuries leading up to 1600, falconry became a universal sport, art, and pastime in western Europe where it became a favourite of the land-owning classes.

But the arrival of gunpowder and the enclosure acts, restricting access to the countryside, led to a sharp decline in falconry across Europe. The gun became the hunting weapon of choice and falconry was relegated to something of a heraldic pastime.

Today it is making something of a measured comeback.

Kester has been a falconer for more than 30 years. He has flown peregrine falcons, but now prefers to hunt with a goshawk near his home in Suffolk.

There remains a distinction between those who hunt with falcons and those who use hawks. While the falcon will only hunt birds, such as grouse, partridge and pheasant, a hawk, such as a goshawk, will kill both birds and small mammals.

And there is a difference in the way they go about their business. When a goshawk catches a rabbit or partridge it tends to clobber it with a combination of razor-sharp talons and weight.

Says Kester: ‘It is a very difference experience, as the falcon flies high into the sky and then make its stoop before making its descent onto the bird. The hawk is more of a smash-and-grab merchant as it is unleashed from the fist towards the quarry.’

Another popular hunting hawk is the Harris hawk, imported from America more than 50 years ago. Some ‘falconers’ also fly eagles for hunting, but these require huge open spaces which, says Kester, ‘take up a hell of a lot of sky’.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts King Harold taking a falcon and hounds when he visited William of Normandy a few years before the fateful Battle of Hastings

Kester says that today falconry is a much more egalitarian sport than it was in the Medieval period, when schools dedicated to the sport were granted royal charters in the exclusive service of the monarch.

‘Falconers,’ he says, ‘tend to be self-employed and need to be able to devote their lives to the welfare of the bird. The worst thing you can do to a falcon or hawk is to keep it sitting on your lawn for weeks on end. It’s a high performance predator that needs to be flown at least three times a week.’

Kester is often asked for advice from aspiring falconers. ‘I tell them if they like spending a lot of time with their children or going on holidays, then falconry is probably not for them.’

Once people appreciate the commitment required from the sport, Kester suggests they take a short course in falconry and then find a friendly falconer who is willing to show them the rudimentary care and training of the bird.

He advises starting with a Harris hawk which he says is intelligent and forms a strong relationship with a human handler, even following its ‘owner’ from tree to tree.

Although the biggest expenditure is in time there is also a financial cost to take into account. A peregrine falcon will command a price tag of around £2,000, while a goshawk would be in the region of £1,000. Harris hawks tend to be rather less – priced at around £200.

'The worst thing you can do to a falcon or hawk is to keep it sitting on your lawn for weeks on end. It’s a high performance predator that needs to be flown at least three times a week.’

And nobody should expect to rely on falconry to provide a regular supply of game for the kitchen table. Says Kester: ‘Most days I don’t catch anything. I think for the whole of last year I caught no more than 50 head of quarry.’

In the Middle East falconry has long been associated with the custom of hospitality where guests are invited to join desert hunting adventures.

Says Kester: ‘I remember a friend of mine who was invited on one such trip. He told his wife that he would only be away for a few days – she didn’t clap eyes on him again for nearly two months.’

The future of British falconry lies in the resurgence of the sport as a form of entertainment for the paying guest.

City visitors who come to the country for shooting are now being offered an additional day’s falconry where they are given the chance to watch a falcon take a grouse or a goshawk grab a rabbit. This not only brings in valuable income for the estate but it also helps to support the art of falconry.

Dartmoor Hawking is one of Britain’s private falconry centres which operates at the heart of Dartmoor National Park in 40 acres on the beautiful Bovey Castle estate. People come from all over the world for raptor hunting experiences.

Owner Martin Whitley is one of very few falconers who practices true falconry from horses and is master of the Dartmoor Falcons, one of only two organised mounted falconry groups in the country.

Of the modern falconry guest he says: ‘There is no stereotype that can be applied to people who come hawking. We see men and women from all walks of life and each client arrives with a range of different expectations. We always try and meet the realistic ones.’

Explaining the joys of falconry he adds: ‘The sight of a falcon diving down towards earth at over 100mph is one of life’s truly exhilarating experiences. The attraction is working with what is intrinsically a wild animal, and it allowing me into its world. It’s the ultimate in birdwatching.’

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2015

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