Hawks on the Shropshire hills
PUBLISHED: 16:27 02 December 2010 | UPDATED: 00:13 08 January 2014
Nigel Hawkins explains why falconry sets him on fire
Let us prey
Nigel Hawkins explains why falconry sets him on fire
I watch my two German shorthaired pointers working the ground into wind, noses questing for their quarrys elusive scent. The older freezes, pointing upwind, and before long the younger dog assumes the classic pointer pose, respecting his kennelmates find.The goshawk on my glove knows whats coming next. His neck stretches as if to try and squeeze a few more inches height to see whats caught his four-legged partners attention. His grip on my glove tightens, recognising my intentions, even as I inhale and put the whistle to my lips to send the dogs in to flush.
A whirring of wings and, in the blink of an eye he is off the fist and accelerating, inches off the floor, towards his objective a hen pheasant. As both birds threaten to rocket from sight, already about 300 feet away, I set off in hot pursuit with the dogs running alongside. Over hedges, through bushes, squeezing in between barbed wire fences, I reach my successful male goshawk with his prize another one for the pot. After a well-deserved feed he steps contentedly back onto the glove and we make our way back to the Land Rover to enjoy a cup of tea and tot of whisky while the hawks, sat out on their perches, enjoy the bone-warming winter sunshine, wings fanned wide.
Later on, its off into the hills, this time with a Harris hawk. This relative newcomer to Britains 1,400-year-old heritage of falconry allows for a more aerial, relaxed kind of hawking. The raptor floats effortlessly on the rising updrafts of wind and thermals around 100 to 500 feet above us on the hillside. The power of a hawks eyesight may be proverbial, but at times it takes binoculars for us to see his head scanning the ground for rabbits. His presence attracts many different wild birds of prey, mainly buzzards, but we occasionally see peregrines, merlins, red kites and kestrels. Some remain aloof while others come for a closer look.Seeing a wild raptor only feet away from a domesticated bird of prey is a truly breathtaking experience, a real link to the natural world.
After watching the raptors soaring over the stunning scenery of South Shropshire for a couple of hours, the sun begins to set on this amazing landscape, truly turning it into Housmans blue, remembered hills, so I call the hawk down to the glove for his meal. The afternoons hawking has been less productive from the point of putting quarry in the bag, yet still successful all the same. The spectacle of flight is our true objective, and witnessing the birds and dogs working in unity is a privilege that I never tire of.
Falconrys exact beginnings in the East, supposedly around 5,000 years ago, are obscure, as is the date of its arrival into Britain. The art of hunting wild quarry with trained counterparts of the birds of prey which are their natural predators, it undoubtedly began as a means of putting food on the table, albeit a spectacular, if often unsuccessful, method of doing so. The earliest evidence for falconry in Britain dates from around 675AD, and the aesthetic appeal of the sport made it a favourite of the rich and powerful, becoming a largely aristocratic pursuit as the Middle Ages progressed. It came to take on huge cultural and symbolic significance, and even had a profound effect on our language. If ever youve felt hoodwinked, fed up, under the thumb, at the end of your tether or taken solace in booze as a result, maybe cadging a drink from a friend or, in your merry state, clumsily making a pass at someone you found alluring, the phrases used to describe your experience stem from the falconers technical vocabulary.
Throughout Europe, falconry became almost a mania, with countless depictions in art and literature, and the works of Shakespeare are crammed with references to a pursuit that in his day was as popular as football is today. It declined sharply after the Civil Wars and became all but extinct as shooting increased in popularity. However, it has remained an unbroken tradition in Britain since the earliest days, and Shropshire is no exception. The Domesday Book lists a number of local eyries (hawks nests) zealously guarded by the invading Normans who were keen to preserve hawks for their recreation. The future Charles II, as a fugitive from Cromwell (himself a keen falconer), passed through part of the Shropshire and Staffordshire borders near Boscobel House disguised as a servant in a loyal landowners hawking party. More recently, Ronald Stevens, a falconer who pioneered the use of falcons to clear airfields of birds that could endanger jet aircraft at RAF Shawbury, hawked on the Long Mynd either side of World War Two.His autobiographical books Laggard and The Taming of Gengis (both recently republished) not only detail his hawking experiences, but are a delight for anyone who loves the Mynd, vividly describing this captivating landscape.
Falconry remains an enthralling, captivating and some would say obsessive way of life, with many modern practitioners choosing careers to suit their lifestyle. Alongside my passion for falconry I am a fireman, an odd mix some may say, but around the world there are firemen who practice this tradition to the highest standards, since the shifts we work allow us time to fly our birds.
The transition into a falconer was a slow one. As a youngster I used to work weekends at a local clay pigeon shoot, learning a lot from farmers, gamekeepers and generally enjoying being outdoors among friendly, country folk. Joining the Army, I served in Canada and Northern Ireland. My life having revolved around being outdoors and using guns for so long, on leaving the Army in 1993 I promptly visited the local gun shop, purchased an air rifle and joined a local field target club. Visiting various country fairs over the years, my lifelong love for birds of prey developed into a fascination for falconry. However, having spoken to many falconers, I realised I couldnt commit the time and dedication into the upkeep and needs of a raptor with the hours I was working.
I joined the fire service after leaving the army and have served at most of the West Midlands 39 fire stations at one time or other. After completing my probationary period, I realised I could now give the commitment which owning a bird of prey demands. I would be able to fly hawks in between night shifts, meaning I could fly a bird for six days out of every rotating eight day shift pattern. I joined Shropshire Hawking Club, (now the Shropshire and Midlands Border region of the British Falconers Club), and after attending numerous field meets realised that if I was going to pursue this art to the highest standards I would need a hunting dog to flush game.
I acquired a German shorthaired pointer, Otto, and trained him over the next 12 months before I even considered purchasing a bird of prey. I became very active within the club, eventually taking on the position of field officer which involved meeting landowners to organise hawking days for members. By this time I had trained my first bird, a Harris hawk and was fully immersed in this all-consuming passion.
After several successful seasons, attending international field meets and making annual hawking pilgrimages to the Scottish highlands, I acquired my second bird of prey, a goshawk. These raptors have featured in British falconry from its beginnings and provide a more classic style of flight, a dynamic direct pursuit over and through all terrains, even the densest woodlands. Nothing seems to get in the goshawks way, hence their being known as Phantom of the Forest. However, there is a price to pay in this partnership. Possessed of a very nervous, fiery nature, more akin to a thoroughbred horse, any error or mishandling with goshawks seems to accentuate itself tenfold. Every day needs to be spent with them just to gain their trust. Its a relationship only a few are willing to enter into.
The time and effort needed to train any raptor to its full potential should never be underestimated. Adding the dogs, ferrets and even human assistants required for consistent success into the equation, particularly for beginners, can be a recipe for disaster. However, when all the hard work and training come together and all members of the team are working as a unit, its as close as you can get to becoming one with nature.
After taking friends and work colleagues out to experience the magic they saw taking over my life, it became apparent a lot of people were interested in falconry but did not have the time to commit to owning a bird of prey. I started my own business to enable such people to experience the exhilaration of working closely with hawks.
Hawkins Falconry offers
one-to-one falconry days on the South Shropshire Hills during the hawking season. A bespoke day might entail spending the morning flying a Harris hawk on the hills then, after a pub lunch, heading out to fly the goshawk. Any quarry caught can be dressed for clients to be taken home for the pot, with a booklet of recipes. For those who want to get close to, and learn about, birds of prey, without seeing them hunting quarry there are two-hour hawk walks with the emphasis on clients handling and flying the birds. Numbers are kept to a maximum of three to maximise the individuals experience, though dedicated photographers can opt for a specialist photography session geared towards capturing elusive in-flight shots, close-up static images and photographs of hawks at work or rest in stunning natural settings Where a would-be falconer feels they have the time and facilities to practice the sport, individual tuition on an apprenticeship basis can be arranged.
Email: info@hawkins falconry.co.uk or tel: 07956 347427 for bookings and gift vouchers