THERE’S a much-used, rarely attributed saying that is particularly apt advice for the aspiring falconer or austringer: if it flies, floats or fornicates, rent it, don’t buy it. The undeniable magic of standing hundreds of feet beneath a falcon, waiting for the impending stoop and kill, is somewhat tempered by the effort and risks involved in launching a bird of prey skyward. “A good day is one in which every bird is back safely on the fist,” observes falconer Rob Kelly.
“Put in those terms, there is wisdom in hiring someone else’s flying circus rather than underwriting your own,” chuckles David Kenyon, our host. Kenyon and his wife Kate were busy unpacking their lives as the new owners of Crowcombe Court when the opportunity to host a day’s falconry arose. The Kenyons don’t shy away from challenge: they presided over a wedding just three days after the last removals lorry pulled off their drive, so it came as no surprise to find them hosting friends and falconers a mere month later. After all, what better way to meet your neighbours than to borrow their land to float a baker’s dozen of falcons over?
Kate’s interest in birds of prey has its roots in a childhood spent on her family estate in Wiltshire. “Hamptworth has always been home to goshawks, buzzards, sparrowhawks, kestrels and owls, but it was really when we had resident falconers that I became aware of the history and complexity of the sport, and the tremendous relationship between man and bird,” she explains.
Hiring a flying circus of one’s own is a relatively straightforward affair (compared to owning one) provided, of course, a few guidelines are followed. “From Land’s End to John O’Groats, all any falconer wants is good ground, good weather and plenty of game,” declares Alan Greenhalgh, chairman of the southern section of The British Falconers’ Club.
As with any sport, how it is practised is precisely defined in language. Someone flying falcons is a falconer; an austringer flies hawks. Falconers and austringers don’t mix, or rather, their birds don’t. This divide is created by the fundamental differences between falcons and hawks. Understanding the distinctions between the two will help to determine exactly which circus is the right one for your ground.
The genus Falco, of which all falcons are members, is characterised by the possession of two assets: long, thin, tapered wings and a powerful, notched beak. Wing shape determines power, turning capability and ul-timately speed through the air. Given that the peregrine (Falco perigrinus) is not only the fastest bird but the fastest creature on earth, with a diving speed recorded at 322km per hour, the adaptation is pretty effective. After delivering an in-flight punch worthy of Ali to its prey with a fist of balled-up talon, the falcon pursues its quarry earthward. The rapid despatch is completed by the falcon’s notched beak, known as a tomial tooth, which has neck-breaking power.
Hawk is the name given to the genera of birds in the family Accipitridae. Usually of bigger build than falcons, hawks have shorter wings, a beak with a simple curve, and powerful talons. Slower in flight, hawks tend to glide rather than dive, using air currents to keep their bulk aloft. Instead of dropping from great height at speed, hawks make short, stealthy dashes to surprise their prey.
To keep your austringers happy, Ian Bell, chairman of the north-east section of The British Falconers’ Club advises, “You need to have a reasonable quantity of game: you can’t fly every pheasant or rabbit you see.” Trained hawks are flown at prey from the fist, while falcons are cast off to take up a position at height, a posture called “waiting-on”.
When it comes to understanding how the physics of flight and speed are going to apply to one’s pitch, it’s easier to think in terms of athletics. To host the 60-metre dash, all you need is that short stretch of track befitting well-muscled sprinters – a pitch that will never suit the featherweight runners of the 10,000-metre distance event. If the available ground is a network of hedgerows, woodland blocks and small fields, extending an invite to members of the Accipitridae is going to be more suitable. On the other hand, if possessed of rolling acres as far as the eye can see, invite the falconers and make an appointment with the osteopath to sort out the kinks in your neck.
As the remains of Bonfire Night smouldered in the village below, guests gathered on the front lawns of Crowcombe, coffee cups in hand, to admire the array of perched falcons and their furniture (the technical term for the kit used in falconry). The assembled house guests were keen shots and horsemen, trained to spring from bed before first light in order to avoid the keeper’s or Master’s wrath but they had been informed by falconer-in-chief Greenhalgh that a leisurely approach was the order of the day, with birds aloft by 10.30.
Any keeper will tell you it is nigh on impossible to make a bird do something it wouldn’t in the wild and the same is true of falcons. “Falconry is about harnessing natural behaviour. You can’t punish a bird but you can reward the behaviour you want and in this way cultivate its innate ability for your own ends,” explains falconer Danny Ringham.
Falcons need to be hungry to fly well, from both an incentive and a weight perspective. In what amounts to a daily devotion, falconers try to fly and feed their birds at the same time each day. The flying order had to take into account the schedules of all eight birds, a syncopation requiring diplomacy and precision.
After winding our way through the lanes of Somerset, the field of eight falconers and eight onlookers spilled out on to landowner and guest Geoff Herd’s stubble field, where the cover crop met the road. Falconers work on the “beat one, stand one” principle, the only difference being they may beat for seven birds before having the opportunity to fly their own.
The aggressive, predatory nature of the falcons means they don’t distinguish between pigeon, pheasants and fellow birds of prey when it comes to sizing up a tasty meal. As soon as there is a bird in the air, the falconers with birds on their wrists are constantly aware of where the airborne falcon is and what he’s looking at. Stories abound of birds taken from the wrists of their distracted falconer.
With a Brittany spaniel and a German wirehaired pointer working through the maize in the beating line, falconer Gary Cook stood in the stubble, his gyr-peregrine cross on his wrist, readying itself for flight. In moments it was aloft, circling us as it gained height, ready to wait-on above our heads until game was flushed for it. The distinctive whir of pheasant wings and a shout from the beating line was all the warning given before the falcon stooped and disappeared into the maize pursued by Gary. Moments later, he re-appeared, sated bird on one fist and headless pheasant in the other.
The beating line resumed its push through the cover, only to have the second and third birds to take to the wing fall foul of the same temptation: a drive on a neighbouring shoot. Geoff Herd took it all in his stride and chuckled as he imagined the look on his neighbour’s face as birds of prey appeared one after another over the gun line.
“The falcon is attuned to movement below,” explains falconer and artist Dave Scott, as the telemetry equipment used to pinpoint location was switched on and the falconers set off to collect birds. “The beaters, pickers-up and even the guns will attract the falcon’s attention. And today they are doing a better job of it than we are.”
While falconers and guns share the same seasons, there is an old enmity between keeper and bird of prey that threatens to spill over to the trained falcons. This attitude is easily dispelled once you realise how hard it can be to catch just one pheasant with a bird of prey. Of course, advances in telemetry and plenty of radios make it much easier to co-ordinate a day and locate birds.
While we waited for the return of our errant companions, the mysterious wooden boxes and wicker hampers secreted in the back of the Kenyons’ four-wheel-drive were disgorged to reveal a spread of local delicacies to rival any shoot-day lunch. As they basked in the autumn sun and tucked in to the feast, the falconers explained the hazards and challenges of their sport.
Unlike keen shots who pursue pigeon and rabbits outside the game season, falcons used on game are kept exclusively for the purpose. “Pigeon are a real no-no,” Greenhalgh is ad-amant. “Birds can go for miles chasing pigeon.” Only one bird can be flown at a time, turning pigeon chasers into complete time wasters for the entire gathering. To deter this, the pursuit of pigeon is punished by not rewarding the bird with food, creating the link between the undesirable behaviour and an empty belly.
By the same token, a trained bird needs success. “You can’t disappoint your falcon. The quickest way to ruin a bird is not to flush game for it,” Greenhalgh says. What appears on the surface to be a devoted relationship is both much more symbiotic and tenuous than it first appears. “Falcons have no loyalty. If you have food, they’re yours,” observes falconer and wildlife artist Andrew Ellis with a grin.
After lunch, we were back off across the stubble with a falcon above us. As soon as a bird was up in the air, all the smaller birds disappeared. As the light waned, we pushed a hedge this way and a cover crop that way, with no success. The wind was working against us now. It was clear that a developed understanding of anemology (the study of wind) is crucial in falconry. Like aeroplanes, the birds fly into the wind to take off, and on slopes they take off uphill to avoid down-draughts. And similar to a shoot with drives that work only when the wind is in one direction, some slopes are us-able only when Zephyrus cooperates.
The extremes of our day were captured in its final flights: there was fabulous waiting-on where the field could see the falcon calculating the geometry of the stoop and deciding that the pheasants would make cover before he could hit the ground; following hot on its heels was a frustrating search for Scott’s falcon when she stubbornly decided it was too early in the season to cooperate and took up residence in an oak; and the final flight of the day saw a pheasant flushed and despatched in the same easy manner as the first. At last, the field retired to dissect the day’s events over crumpets and tea in Crowcombe’s ballroom.
PLAYING HOSTS TO BIRDS OF PREY
Finding falconers and austringers willing to come and fly on your land is relatively easy. All the regional falconers’ clubs arrange days out and many will be only too happy to put you in touch with falconers and austringers in your area. Alan Greenhalgh recommends inviting a maximum of eight falconers (fewer in December when days are shorter). And anticipate a maximum of 16 kills if each falconer brings two birds. In general, birds are flown only once and, as we found, not every bird will kill. Hawks will make multiple flights in a day, so Ian Bell advises that four or five austringers with one hawk each will fill a five-hour day of sport.
- Expect to pay your falconers’ travel expenses at least. The more local the club, the cheaper this will be.
- Provide a suitable midday repast for the falconers as well as your guests.
- Approach the best-suited falconry group (falconers or austringers) for your land.
- Choose the right circus for your terrain. An average shoot of 400-500 acres will provide plenty of ground when paired with the appropriate birds.
- Warn your neighbours to expect birds of prey in the air.
- Plan ahead and keep the seasons in mind.
- Do falconry on a free-range chicken farm or on land near a motorway.
- Have falconers working where there are power lines.
- Schedule your outing on the same day as the neighbouring shoot.
- Arrange your outing for the same day as the local pigeon races.
Greenhalgh can be found most weekends in the summer displaying his birds and educating the public. In the season, he travels up to 300 miles to fly his falcons on game. To find out more, call him on 07901 520201.
Bell is a keen shot and a passionate austringer. He flies his goshawk over the same ground he shoots. Call him on 07836 679573.
British Falconers’ Club
This is the oldest established falconry club in the UK. It has regional branches.
When they aren’t hosting weddings, David and Kate Kenyon welcome sporting guests throughout the game season. They throw open their doors to shooting parties, hunts and, of course, falconers and austringers. For further information call 01984 618478.