Falcons flown by enthusiasts mounted on former racehorses produced thrilling sport against a dramatic backdrop, as Neil Cross discovered
Neil Cross headed to Dartmoor to experience hunting with falcons on horseback. It proved a thrilling sport set against a dramatic backdrop.
For more on different days out hunting, we visited Germany to experience the highly social and enjoyable form of drag hunting that has developed there. Read German drag hunting: a cover version of hunting in Germany.
HUNTING WITH FALCONS
Flying falcons at live quarry amongst the crags and tors of Dartmoor must be the purest form of venery practised anywhere, and Martin and Philippa Whitley are true masters of this art. Indeed, Martin Whitley serves as Master of the Dartmoor Falcons. This private pack dovetails neatly with his day job, performing stunning public displays with his Dartmoor Hawking roadshow.
When I joined the pack for its opening meet at Alex Warne’s historic moorland home, a stone’s throw from Postbridge, there was an ancient tang of excitement in the air. Although Warne hosts several meets of foxhounds here each season, this gathering felt quite different. The mounted field was drawn from Dartmoor’s hunting hardcore; those who hunt for their own pleasure, not to astonish others. Thoroughbreds were out in force, as Whitley only hunts his falcons from the back of retired racehorses. Indeed, he has become famous for rehoming thoroughbreds, including three ex-Godolphin horses, one of which won a Group Two race and was placed in a Group One.
“We love to show them off in public to prove how versatile they are in life after racing,” says Whitley. “Speed and temperament are crucial in a horse as falconry is fast. These thoroughbreds pick it up quickly.”
Another disciple of the hunting thoroughbred is Stephen Froy MFH, out with his wife, Fiona, and young daughter, Eugenie. He hunts ex-racehorses with all the moorland packs and favours them for their light-footedness and pace. A finer stamp of horse can get one out of boggy bother up here and when hounds fly, an additional charge of speed over tricky ground can make all the difference between being in at the end or lost in the fog. Froy recalls: “We picked up a broken-down racehorse and slowly brought it back into work.” This gift horse was the start of a love affair that saw the Froys rehome a dozen ex-racers. “The beam is that much narrower on a thoroughbred, which affords comfort, plus stamina and a willingness to try, coupled with the push-button turbo boost to get you where you need to be.”
Another Dartmoor stalwart is Tracy Weight, impeccably turned-out in vintage sidesaddle habit and veiled bowler. She too hunts with all the moorland packs and admits that, “hunting is in my blood. My grandfather was chairman of the Spooners & West Dartmoor for many years and my father and I were Joint Masters of the Lamerton. Even when I lived in Hong Kong, I would regularly come home to get a few days in.”
Weight enthuses about her treasured days with Whitley’s birds of prey. “To hunt sideways on Dartmoor following Martin Whitley’s falcons is fascinating, fast and furious. It takes one back to a previous era – Mary, Queen of Scots had a passion for falconry. It just doesn’t get better than this.”
A VISION COME TO FRUITION
Hacking from a generous meet onto the moor, Whitley explained how his vision of mounted hunting with falcons came to fruition. A scion of the Whitley Brewing dynasty, his great-grandfather, William Whitley, came to Brimley House in South Devon country from Cheshire at the turn of the century. The proceeds of the brewery allowed him to take over the running of the South Devon hounds in 1915 in order to save the pack during World War I, and as all the hunters had gone to the Western Front, he and his hunt staff used polo ponies instead. William and his brother, Herbert, were Joint Masters throughout the 1920s, although Herbert Whitley was better known as an amateur geneticist who bred blue pigeons, blue whippets, blue cattle and the first Cruft’s champion greyhound. He set up Paignton Zoo from his menagerie. William Whitley hunted what is now the South and Mid Devon country from his home at Buckland Court. His son, Claude, was born here and went on to become the longest-serving MFH in England. He hunted his own South Devon hounds until the 1970s, when he could no longer keep up with the bitch pack.
The idea of hunting falcons from horseback came accidentally when he took on a tricky peregrine that he started flying at crows in order to settle it. Large open spaces are required for this type of sport and although Whitley is the only falconer to have taken a brace of grouse on Dartmoor with a peregrine, he now hunts crows with large, hybrid falcons. He says these peregrine/saker crosses are perfect: “The saker brings hardiness and aggression and the peregrine brings beauty and pace.” Then came the bald eagles, which are scared of horses but murderously dangerous to people, especially golfers. He admits, “Rosie the bald eagle took down a golfer – but at least it was only a golfer. It makes me so sad to see all that lovely riding and hunting ground wasted to golf courses. Luckily, the golfer retained his sense of humour after 47 stitches,” and Whitley switched to flying golden eagles at foxes. “Eagles are fast but cumbersome so again you need space. One needs to get the fox into the open and eagles will take on slips of up to 200 yards. It’s like coursing with an aerial greyhound.”
When an eagle takes a head shot at a fox it exerts extraordinary pressure. His female golden eagle weighs in at 12½lb and when striking a fox at 50mph the foot power is deadly. As Whitley says, “the tricky bit is getting a pumped-up eagle off a fox or a golfer”, and he has the scars to prove it.
High on the moor above Postbridge, with a hooded falcon on the gauntlet, we scanned the horizon for crows, which are incredibly sharp and can out-manoeuvre a stooping falcon although slower in the air. Anyone who has ever tried to stalk a crow with a gun will know just how impossible that is. However, from the back of a horse the job gets much easier and the corvids allow an approach to within 30yd to 40yd. Whitley soon spots a crow atop a drystone wall and in one swift movement he unmasks the falcon and shows it to the lifting quarry. With a light tinkle of bells and several languid strokes of scimitar wings, the falcon accelerates low across the heather with astonishing speed. The crow stays low too and makes for a distant tree line. The aerial combat that follows is breathtaking. The crow jinks like a windblown snipe but the falcon gets above it and sweeps its wings back for a bombing stoop. It only gets one pass and fails to rake the crow with its hind talons when momentum is expended and the crow makes covert. As we await the falcon’s return, we spot more crows feeding in the open amongst some sheep. The falcon has seen them, too, and towers until it is a barely discernible speck in the sky. The mounted field is then treated to a spine-tingling exhibition of raw predatory prowess as the falcon sweeps past at head height from its stoop onto the crows. One bird breaks right and seeks altitude but the falcon cuts its escape with an audible thump. Interestingly, the remaining crows then mount a counter-attack and drive the falcon back. After a brace of fast hunts, we ride down the valley side to meet Philippa Whitley, who has brought up fresh falcons in the Land Rover. She is legendary on Dartmoor for her hospitality and soon the mounted field is being plied with sloe gin. Very much a Joint Master here with the Dartmoor Falcons, she also takes part in all the mounted and dismounted displays the Whitleys put on across the West Country.
With the mounted field refreshed and Martin Whitley on second falcons, we move off back up towards the high ground of Merripit Hill. Shortly, another solitary crow is viewed away from some gorse. Whitley releases his falcon and the field kicks on into a gallop across the springy turf on the moorland edge. This is like a tilt at a Belvoir hedge and hats are crammed down whilst the pure joy of piloting a thoroughbred rushes in. Whitley had kindly lent me My Lad Tommy, a one-eyed ex-chaser, and I was soon away with the falcon in sight, streaking across the moor. One needs to trust the horse and bowl along at buckle end. Galloping back down the valley and across the Postbridge road, Whitley and I stayed in touch with the flashing falcon and were in at the end on Soussons Down. With tired birds and horses, we trotted back to Dartfordleigh, where Alex Warne and his partner, Jane Batth, had laid on a glorious hunting tea. Over egg sandwiches by the Aga, Warne explained that he has followed hounds on Dartmoor since the ’50s and from his house – which sits on the East Dart and Postbridge road – he can see all four of the moorland hunt countries.
Even such a seasoned campaigner feels that, “it’s hard to describe the sheer pleasure of riding this wild and rugged country. Indulging in mounted falconry whilst field mastering for Martin’s Dartmoor Falcons has been a source of great joy to me. For those who appreciate working hounds and birds of prey there is nowhere quite like Dartmoor.”
One of the things that makes Dartmoor special is its unimpeded vistas, where hounds or falcons can be viewed across broad landscapes. There is also a refreshing lack of trappiness here and a stout heart, coupled with a clever horse, will really allow one to cover the ground. By doing so, it is possible to watch the venery from close quarters and enjoy an experience that would be all but impossible ‘up-country’.
As horses were boxed up from Dartfordleigh and falcons returned to their mews, those who had been fortunate enough to enjoy a day of superlative hunting repaired to the Ring of Bells in North Bovey. Over a hearty supper in this quintessentially Devonian pub, tales of hunts and hawks were exchanged late into the evening.
To contact Martin Whitley and Dartmoor Falconry, call 07791560948 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Warne hosts hunting and hawking B&B at Dartfordleigh. Call him on 01822 880333 or email email@example.com