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Falconry

Falconry is – or was, it is an ancient sport – hierarchical. At the peak was the Gyrfalcon, the emperor's  or king’s bird. The Peregrine came next as the lord’s falcon and the Hobby and Merlin were respectively for the squire and the lady. Below them, for the common man were hawks – the Goshawk and Sparrowhawk. Falcons have longer and finer wings and a shorter tail than hawks and also dark eyes. They hunt by flying above their prey and stooping – folding their wings and plummeting to strike a blow with their feet. Hawks on the other hand, with their more rounded wings and long tails, are at home in woodland, twisting and turning through trees to snatch their quarry with their talons. They have yellow eyes and a savage demeanor: they are the Mike Tyson of the skies as opposed to the D’Artagnan of their falcon cousins. For an account of taming and flying a Goshawk, the recent Samual Johnson Prize winner, H is for Hawk, is without peer.

For falconers the ne plus ultra is flying Peregrines over grouse. It is the pitting of two of the fastest and most agile of birds in the theatre of heather moorland – some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. On a sparkling, warm October day on the North York Moors we were able to watch it, something I have wanted to do all my life, and it did not disappoint.

We met outside the house in the late morning sun. The falconers laid out blocks, or perches, on the lawn and the dozen or so birds hooded their wings and sunbathed. The females – or falcons – are bigger than the tiercels and the immature plumage of both sexes is browner, maturing to black white and grey. One bird, bigger and with a light grey back was a quarter Gyrfalcon. As we chatted it became apparent that they were deliberately killing time. Successful falconry is all about balance of food. Too much and the bird isn’t interested in hunting; too little and they haven’t the energy. The optimum condition has a wonderful word, ‘yarak’, to describe it. The falcons were a little too close to the previous day’s afternoon feed to be on peak form.

This was proven by the first flight of the day by a young bird. For a glider pilot it was a perfect day with the sky dotted by cumulus clouds showing the presence of thermals. For the young falcon it was ecstasy and within a minute he was out of sight – probably two thousand feet above us and just visible through binoculars. His owner swung the lure, a feather covered piece of meat, with more hope than expectation as the falcon gambolled in his element.

It was later in the afternoon after some exciting stoops that we witnessed the perfect kill. I had one of the falconers standing behind me describing the intricacies of what I was watching – what he described as a three dimensional game of chess. It began with the falconer taking off the leather hood that kept the falcon calm. It was the particularly beautiful part-Gyrfalcon whose light grey back-plumage shone in the sunshine. She was an experienced hunter in perfect condition. Her owner walked forward with his pointer and the falcon on his wrist. The pointer froze, marking a grouse by scent only, not moving a muscle. The falconer held up his arm and the falcon took off, circling in wide sweeps as she gained height over where the dog was pointing. Behind me my guide was telling me what was going on. The grouse could see the human, the dog and the falcon. The dog could smell but not see the grouse and would only flush it on its master’s command; the falconer was aware that the grouse could run down a gully faster than a dog could follow it; the grouse was also well aware that the wind was its friend if it could fly at the point in the falcon’s circle when she was downwind – about two thirds of the circumference of the sweeps she was making. One grouse used its opportunity and the falcon didn’t even give it a look. The falconer also knew this and at the downwind point of the circle he called the point - and the dog rushed forward just at the moment that the Peregrine was about to complete its sweep and be in the perfect place. The grouse took off downwind, hugging the contours and twisting downwind in blur of wing-beats. The falcon was at about five hundred feet when she folded her wings and plummeted like a missile towards the grouse and the ground. If you have ever seen a grouse flying downwind you will know what a difficult target that is – particularly when the falcon has to strike the grouse with its feet - as well as pull up from a dive that has been timed at nearly 200mph.

A puff of feathers and the rearing pull-up of the Peregrine before she swooped to bind on her prey told of a kill. As we approached her on the ground, she fixed us with a gimlet eye while tearing at her prey. The delighted falconer let her feast before tempting her with a morsel of meat back onto his fist. She shook her feathers in the sunlight and everyone smiled at the privilege of seeing one of the great sights of the wild – a wild that slid away into the verdant valley that culminated in Whitby and the North Sea.


Joy it was to be alive.
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