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I SAW it through the window at last light - a female sparrowhawk, crashing through the hedge and clutching a blackbird. She landed on the lawn and started to tear out its feathers. She was close enough for me to see the brown sheen of her back and those glaring tiger-yellow eyes. What I could also see, and she couldn't, was a neighbour's cat, with ideas above its station, crawling towards her through the geraniums. But a second or so later, the spar sensed it too, and began tightening her talons, ready for take-off. At which point the blackbird opened its eyes, and writhed... I am rather glad that the spar shot away at this point, and I was spared the last act.

Contrary to popular belief, hawks aren't always quick, clean killers. They are, undeniably, furious and unrelenting as hunters, notorious for getting trapped in greenhouses during mad pursuits. What they are not is cruel - a word which, if it isn't to become nonsensical, should be reserved for humans making deliberate choices. Hawks are simply doing what they have to do. This is why I have mixed feelings about whether falconry should be lumped in with less savoury blood sports. What I find painful is the plight of the falcons themselves - moping in cages and straining at their tethers. But there is another side to it, as I'd seen the week before at the Bird of Prey Centre in Gloucestershire. Many of the birds here are rescue cases, or endangered species being captive-bred for reintroduction to the wild. Jemima Parry-Jones runs the whole assemblage - birds, sheep, cats, dogs and ferrets - with the manic, good-humoured energy of an inner-city soup-kitchen. Last year all new arrivals were named after poets, and I was there to see the release of a vast female goshawk called Khayam, which had been rescued from illegal captivity and taught to hunt in the wild. Seconds after her flight to freedom, a wild gos - they are doing splendidly in Welsh borderlands - called to her from the woods.

Birds of prey are currently getting a bad press in the countryside. Many of the same people who were appalled at their near extinction by agricultural pesticides are now expressing outrage that their numbers are recovering, and are making them the scapegoats for an imagined decline in garden birds. The Duchess of Devonshire - "they use a bird-table like the Ritz bar" - is arguing that sparrowhawks should be classed as vermin again. It fills me with despair that even experienced gardeners still don't understand that populations in the wild are driven from below - the numbers of insects controlling the numbers of small birds and so on, up the food chain. Any specialised predator that began to eliminate its food source would be signing its own extinction warrant. But the increasing numbers of goshawks - which have something of the look of indignant dowagers themselves - may be some comfort to the Duchess. They occasionally eat their smaller mates and have been known to do the same to upstart sparrowhawks. !