The word unique is often misused but not when it refers to the amazing relationship between falconer, dog and bird. Success comes only if all three combine together as a team; it's a partnership that depends on mutual trust, respect and experience.
There’s little disagreement among austringers (the correct term for those who fly short-winged hawks as opposed to long-winged falcons) that the goshawk is the ultimate hunting bird. Its size provides the power for the explosive acceleration that allows it to catch a rocketing pheasant or a galloping hare but if the bird is to catch its quarry, then it has to be given a reasonable opportunity. This is where the dog comes in. A good, solid point from the dog allows the austringer to approach the quarry close enough to be able to slip the bird with some chance of success. The flight of the hawk is judged by its length and quality (a kill isn’t vital), so the bird is cast from the fist at a range that gives a sporting chance to its quarry.
While the goshawk may be the ultimate flying machine, there’s considerable debate as to which is the best breed of dog to accompany it, but most austringers agree that it’s a Continental pointer of some sort. The most popular breeds are the German shorthaired and wirehaired pointers, and the Brittany, for all three hunt with passion and point solidly and reliably. The last thing an austringer or falconer wants is a dog that retrieves (the image of a pointer with a goshawk in its jaws is the stuff of nightmares) so, in theory at least, this makes training the dog somewhat easier.
The best Brittanys I’ve seen have been out hawking rather than shooting. This breed is often reluctant to retrieve, making it ideal for working with hawks. Some years ago, on a hawking foray in the Suffolk Brecks, I chatted to Tim Stafford, the owner of a Brittany. He told me that his choice of dog was partly dictated by the fact that he lived in a small house where there wasn’t room for a German pointer. Stafford went on to tell me that he was chairman of a rough-shooting club, so he also shot over his dog. “She goes into a completely different mode when I get the gun out rather than the hawk. If she is working by herself she will point but not if she’s working in the beating line. She is very good at retrieving runners but she’s not interested in dead birds,” he says.
There’s a strict etiquette when flying goshawks: two birds are never flown at the same time, as there’s always the risk that one might try to kill the other. However, it is normal to run two or more dogs at once, often giving the chance to compare the hunting styles and abilities of the various breeds. If one dog comes on point, then the second dog is expected to honour that point by backing it. Dogs that fail to do this are deservedly unpopular. There was a German shorthaired pointer that failed to back on my final hawking outing last season, raising the ire of the other hawkers, for it was clear that the dog was hunting for itself, not for his master or bird. More training was clearly needed.
For both the austringer and the falconer, the flight of the bird is far more important than the work of the dog. The latter may be vital to success but the dog’s hunting is a means to an end, not something to be particularly commented on, however impressive it may be.
Many English hawkers work their dogs with electric collars: controlling a wayward dog when you have a goshawk on your fist isn’t easy. On one outing last season, I noted that four of the five dogs running were so equipped. However, it soon became apparent that the collars were rarely used, and even then at the lowest settings. One handler told me that he ran his Brittany with an electric collar because it wasn’t unusual to lose her when she was on point. Two bleeps from the collar would bring her back.
When out hunting, goshawks are always unhooded and flown from the fist. Look at the hawk and you will see that it is watching the dog or dogs with an intensity of concentration that matches Djokovic waiting for a Nadal serve. An experienced hawk knows exactly what a point means and prepares itself accordingly, while the dog also appears to realise that it is working for a hawk. Dogs and hawks soon develop a mutual respect and toleration for each other, for the two come into frequent close contact. This is most evident after a successful flight, when the dog is expected to sit patiently while the bird receives its reward.
One experienced hawker told me that he regarded flying a goshawk without a dog as a complete waste of time as, “You miss so much game and so many opportunities.” However, many hawkers who fly Harris hawks do so without canine assistance, for it’s not unusual for these North American raptors to have an aversion to dogs and refuse to work with them. Unlike goshawks, Harris hawks are often flown in pairs, for in the wild they are social hunters, working cooperatively. They can be readily trained to follow the hawker, rather than being flown from the fist.
Not all Harris hawks have an aversion to dogs. The Gleneagles Hotel used to offer hawking excursions to guests, hunting rabbits with Harris hawks and cocker spaniels. I joined one of these outings a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed watching the hawks and dogs hunting together; they did catch some rabbits, too.
There is one inescapable rule, confirmed by all my hawking experiences: good dogs make good hawks. If the dog isn’t up to standard, then the hawk is unlikely to have many satisfactory flights and the game bag is much more likely to remain empty.