Falconry is the sport of taking wild prey in its natural state and habitat using trained hawks. Although something of a rarity compared to the more popular pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing, falconry is growing in popularity with both beginners and experts alike
Words: Alice Cooke
Nobody should acquire a hawk without first receiving proper instruction in how to keep and handle it, but that aside, The British Falconer’s Club, the oldest and largest club in the country, is delighted to receive new members. Its president, Nicholas Kester says, ‘Falconry’s not a sport for the faint hearted, but once it grabs you, rest assured it will never let you go. I still remember flying my first hawk over 40 years ago.’
Falconry conjures up images of bird centres and country fairs, but that generally isn’t real falconry – it is using falconry methods, but the birds are essentially flying freely.
The best way to get started with this fascinating sport is to meet a falconer and learn all you can from them. ‘It is essentially a solitary sport, but we’re a friendly bunch, so you just need to join a club and attach yourself to a falconer,’ suggests Kester.
The knowledge of an experienced falconer is invaluable, and you must take it seriously says Kester. ‘Hawks are like dogs – they’re not just for Christmas, and your mistakes could be fatal. A hawk will last around ten seasons, and it needs looking after every single day of the year. Hawks do not make good pets and they do not appreciate being fussed over.’
Chris Neal, a lifelong falconry enthusiast, agrees; ‘You need to master the art of falconry properly. It really does pay to get help from recognised, qualified people, not just the guy down the road who has a bird.’
You also need to consider having somewhere to fly your hawk – you either have to own land, rent it or have specific permission from the landowner to work your bird on it.
‘People who just buy a bird and then fly it without permission give the whole sport a bad name,’ says Neal. You also need the right hawk for the country you intend to fly it on – some work best in the open, some in more enclosed cover. The last consideration, says Kester, is time. ‘You have to be in it 100%. I have tailored my whole life and career – which was for a long while based in central London – around being able to have time with my hawks. It’s called devotion, and that’s the way it has to be.’
Hawks are best flown during autumn and winter, when many people are not free to go out during the hours of daylight. The beginner should have sufficient time available in which to exercise and hunt with his hawk. There is also the expense of the hawk, with good birds costing from between £400 and £800 each.
The British Falconers’ Club recommends that after studying the necessary basic knowledge, you should start by training either a harris hawk or a red tailed hawk. Both are very capable hunting hawks in most types of countryside and will take a variety of quarry. The quarry available to falconers in Britain are hares, rabbits and game birds. Captive bred hawks (the best option for beginners) are regularly advertised for sale in the Avicultural Press, but the price and condition of these vary.
Still want to know what it feels like to be in control of a hawk? There’s only one way to find out if it’s for you, and that’s to get the wind beneath your wings, get down to your local club and give it a go.