What brings such an elegant bird of prey to these unprepossessing surroundings? Follow Dagger?s flight until he folds his wings and swoops down to land as soft as a feather on Paul Denholm?s gauntleted fist. Paul has been involved with hawks for as long as he can
remember, and since February 2006 has been one of a growing band of men and women earning a livelihood from falconry rather than struggling to find time for a hobby that demands time in abundance.
Paul may live in Grimsby and wear a day-glo vest for work but he looks every inch the sort of countryman one might meet at a rough- shoot, and here he is on the edge of Scunthorpe hunting gulls and crows.
“For years I’d kept Harris hawks for rabbiting,” he tells me. “Then one day I noticed an NBC advertisement for a falconer in Cage & Aviary Birds magazine and applied for the job. That was the day I ‘retired’; I don’t really class this as work. Falconry is my passion and I look on every day as a paid hobby that happens to provide me with a living.”
Paul refers to the Native Bird Control company by its initials, assuming I will know what the letters stand for, in the way a hunting enthusiast might refer to the MFHA ? and with good reason, for the NBC has grown from humble beginnings to a pest control company predicted to turn over £4 million this year, up from £2.8 million in 2007.
The man responsible for positioning one of the oldest fieldsports to provide a crucial service in the 21st century is passionate falconer John Dickson. He formed the company in 1993 with help from The Prince’s Trust to provide a service for the waste management industry.
Since then NBC has broadened its scope to protect a diverse range of interests from avian and other pests. Clients include air and naval bases, development sites, schools, shopping centres, football stadiums, a grand Cornish hotel (“to stop gulls crapping in the swimming pool”), and even an open-air restaurant where sparrowhawks are flown to deter sparrows from pinching the customers’ food. Also on the list are property developers, multinational companies and, until recently, the Mayor of London, who sanctioned the use of falcons to remove pigeons from Trafalgar Square ? discreetly. According to John, ?Our clients appreciate the environmental and ethical approach. We really are the good guys.?
He laments the fact that many pest control companies are named with reference to death and destruction ? kill this, exterminate that ? as avian pest control is about prevention rather than cure, but warns that the threat to winged vermin is real enough. ?Make no mistake,? he says, ?if the birds don?t fly off they will end up as dinner, but our prime objective is to rid the sites of pests rather than mass slaughter. Birds of prey are so successful because other birds instinctively know they are potentially lethal and make themselves scarce. We run a management programme at each site to ensure the birds don?t return, beginning with an intensive period of control to change their habits. On a landfill site like this, which is attractive to gulls and corvids, we fly falcons or hawks several times a day, five days a week.?
This makes me realise how effective this strategy must be, for although I am looking into the face of a vast quarry partially filled with acres of stinking rubbish ?120,000 tons is buried each year ? the only signs of life are two distant bulldozers crawling across the surface like a pair of yellow grubs. There is not a single gull, let alone a crow or rook.
Site manager Michael Barden explains just how important NBC?s services are to his industry: ?My licence from the Environment Agency stipulates there must be no pests here,? he says. ?We are inspected regularly but have never been scored for pest problems. I have worked at other sites and Paul makes one hell of a difference, he really does. When he is not here we are absolutely caked and covered in gulls, crows and rooks. We ran the site for a year without Paul and we were struggling ? at times it was hard to see the sky for birds.?
Before we leave Paul and his birds of prey to the elusive gulls John takes the opportunity to fly Dagger briefly himself, explaining that he is too busy expanding NBC and its franchise ambitions to fly birds commercially, although he still hunts game at his Norfolk home when time permits. Seeing the magnificent crossbred peregine-saker falcon flying through the empty sky was all very well, but my suspicions that this type of falconry offers all the excitement of a bloodless coup are quelled when John told me, ?You should see a falcon catching a black-backed gull ? that is truly awesome.?
Paul is employed by Ray Fretwell, who took one of the first franchises licensed by the NBC to operate within a defined area in exchange for a percentage of the franchise owner?s turnover. In return NBC provides business support and ongoing practical training resulting in a LANTRA qualification that demonstrates a required level of competence to both clients and the wider falconry community.
The benefits were obvious to Ray, who had no previous experience of falconry but had become fed up (the phrase originates from a falcon?s lack of enthusiasm to do anything energetic once it has eaten) with the daily grind of his engineering job. ?I fancied running my own business, which made me look towards franchising,? he says, ?and I decided to go with NBC as they offered a good training package at their base in Norfolk. I had only been in business two weeks before taking on my first falconer and I now employ three men full-time, which I expect to double in the next year. I value the freedom and variety ? I can be inside a dirty factory one day and out in the fresh air and sunshine the next.?
We?re due to visit the CEMEX cement factory at South Ferriby next, and on the way we pass a second landfill site flecked white by swarms of wheeling gulls. ?That is exactly what you get when we are not around to keep them away,? says Ray. ?Thousands upon thousands of scavenging birds.? The factory makes around 800,000 tonnes of cement a year and is a new customer for Ray, who has recently won the contract to keep the buildings free from feral pigeons. ?We are hoping falcons will act as a deterrent to keep the pigeons away, as their presence is a major health and safety issue,? plant director, John Whyatt, tells me. ?Shooting seems to be totally ineffective, as no matter how many are shot, the numbers are back to normal the very next day.?
Before entering the factory we watch a video on safety procedures and complete a questionnaire to prove we have been paying attention. ?There has to be something wrong with anyone who doesn?t get all the right answers,? jokes the environmental co-ordinator, Rachel Woodforth, her words followed by embarrassment when she realises I have managed to do just that. However, I?m included in the handing out of the obligatory bright vests, protective glasses and hard hats. We enter a labyrinth of dark passages, creaking lifts and steel steps meandering through a dim, dingy world occasionally brightened by columns of light pouring in through dusty windows. ?It?s too nice outside for any self-respecting pigeon to be in here today,? Ray shouts above the rumble of machinery. But he launches his Harris hawk (better indoors than a falcon) into the half-light anyway and we watch the bird search assiduously through the steel rafters, quite unfazed by the noise and dust.
Job done, we go to a local pub for lunch and reflect on the morning?s work. Sitting outside we?re watching curlews and other waders on the Humber?s gleaming mudflats when a hen harrier bursts on to the scene, scattering nervous waterfowl on its flight downstream past the cement factory. John stops talking as he studies the bird, then continues to explain his strategy for expansion and the opportunities for more people to earn a living from practising this ancient fieldsport in the modern world. When I ask whether he has plans to float the company he says, ?Well, our objective for now is to continue to grow the business. We have 17 franchisees but there is room for 50 nationally ? after that we can consider franchising across Europe.? It?s a plan that won?t bring much joy to Gallic gulls.
NBC Bird and Pest Solutions tel 01953 457979
The British Falconers Club has 11 regional groups: Scottish, Yorkshire, Midland, North East, North West, Southern, South West, Mid West, Eastern, Cotswold and Wales & Borders, tel 01692 404057.
The Welsh Hawking Club has five regional groups, two of them in England.
British Birds of Prey Centre Suffolk, tel 01449 711425, email@example.com.
National Birds of Prey Centre Glos, tel 0870 990 1992.
Exmoor Falconry & Animal Farm Somerset, tel 01643 862816
Phoenix Falconry Braco Castle, Perthshire, tel 01786 880539