Come fly with me: Britain's passion for birds of prey

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It used to be the preserve of royalty and the rich, but falconry is suddenly, well, taking off. Now, a staggering 25,000 people engage in this all-consuming pastime – with even inner-city kids trading in their pit bulls for peregrines. Nicola Gill investigates

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Centuries before guns made taking game for the table a relatively easy sport, man teamed up with falcons and hawks in a peculiar and precarious partnership which survived in the hands of only a dedicated few in the UK – until recently. Jim Chick, veteran falconer and chairman of the UK Hawk Board, estimates that when he began training birds of prey in the early Sixties, there were perhaps just 75 other people doing the same. Now, according to the Board's latest figures, there are around 25,000. From being virtually a dead sport, falconry has risen from the ashes to resonate with a new and unlikely band of followers.

Young men and women, even children raised on the Harry Potter films featuring a variety of owls, are increasingly coming into the hobby, drawn to its darkly gothic image and paraphernalia, high-octane thrills and its reputation for being a fiendishly hard art to master. For unlike a dog, which can be cowed into obedience, or a horse, which can be controlled with bit and bridle, no bird of prey can ever truly be tamed. The best a falconer can achieve is a working partnership with these imperious lords of the skies, all the while accepting that although the bird will tolerate handling and hunting with – but not for – him, it will revert to a wild state in the blink of an eye, even after many years.

"Falconry is simply unlike anything else," says Stephen Lea, a former Sky Sports cameraman who is so addicted to hunting with his two peregrine falcons he gave up his job to spend more time pursuing his passion. "The purity of it places it apart from all other hunting. It's as wild as it gets and takes the falconer back to a primitive, elemental state we have lost in our packaged, consumerist society. You cannot be an amateur falconer. The birds need daily weighing, appropriate feeding, human contact, care for their feathers and health, training and above all, in season, several hours hunting almost daily." None of it is compatible with regular work and most falconers find a way, sooner or later, to combine the need to hunt with their birds – for it is just that – with their need to earn a living.

Surprisingly, that isn't putting new fans off: the entry-level falconry course run by Lantra (the Skills Council for land-based and environmental industries), which was introduced due to demand in 2006, has now been completed by 846 new falconers, the youngest of whom was 11. An increase in the numbers of display centres and aviaries offering trial days out is also helping to broaden the appeal of a previously dying sport. Greg Whittaker, of York Falconry, says he has to turn people away because he cannot keep up with requests for the hawks he breeds. "We have more and more people ringing us and we have to tell them all the birds are spoken for," he says.

Elsewhere, falconry's more noble origins are increasingly being used with a twist to teach high fliers corporate leadership skills. Cheshire-based business psychologist Anita Morris, who runs workshops based around falconry says, "Over its 4,000-year history, falconry was used to develop leadership skills in different cultures around the world. Often royalty were trained in falconry, not only because it was considered a sport of kings, but also because kings and princes were leaders of armies as well as countries and needed to develop leadership skills. Humans cannot impose their wishes on birds of prey, it's only through the skills of the falconer that the desired results can be achieved. Falconry is well known as the most difficult and challenging of all the hunting sports and if you talk to leaders in industry and politics, they will tell you the same as a wise falconer – management is a skill, but leadership is an art."

To describe training a hawk or falcon as "challenging" is to undersell a process the majority of us simply aren't cut out for. Most falconers start with a chick which they have to slowly acclimatise to an alien world (ours) it is naturally inclined to be intensely averse to. But because for a bird of prey attack is generally its best form of defence, the falconer has to put up with regular shows of aggression and defiance in the form of flying at his face, talon wounds and screaming fits – or what keepers affectionately call 'tantrums'. The birds will even wilfully starve themselves if unhappy. Only through its handler's patience can the bird be persuaded to tolerate its human keeper, and the dogs or ferrets that are the other tools of the hunt. As Roy Lupton, one of very few in the UK to breed, train and hunt with the magnificent golden eagle, females of which regularly weigh in at 13lbs with a wingspan of 9ft, says, "If you show fear to one of these incredible, intimidating, sometimes infuriating birds, even once, it will never forget it. It will push and push a little further every day until you are in a dangerous situation. All you can do is show them an easier path; the path of working with you instead of against you. But once it comes together – and bear in mind you may have a relationship with this awe-inspiring animal for 60 years – it makes every second worth it."

The obsessive, intense streak that seems to run through all falconers makes it hard not to compare them in the flesh with their proud, aloof birds. It seems to attract solitary characters and it is not for nothing that falconers are seen as the sexy, rock'n'roll rebels of the field sports world compared to the have-a-go City boys playing at country style who blast away on the big corporate shoots, or the scruffy poacher with a scruffy lurcher chasing rabbits on the sly.

Simon Curley, aged 29 and from East Sussex, flies a goshawk and is unapologetic about the life-and-death aspect of his sport. "When I am out with my hawk I feel alive," he says. "The loneliness, the silence apart from the noises of the woods, the heart-pumping excitement of the chase when I slip her from my fist and she pursues her quarry… it's an adrenalin rush like no other. The misses are as thrilling as the kills. What moves me is the battle. It's not about enjoyment in suffering. My goshawk is a perfectly-honed hunting machine and the rabbits and pheasants she catches are perfectly honed for fleeing. It's just an elemental balance, live or die, in that moment. Townies who eat factory-farmed meat, with all the life-long suffering that entails for the animals, but say what I do is cruel, are wide of the mark."

Kirsty Allan, a 17-year-old from Hertfordshire, is also thrilled by seeing the rawest side of nature up close. "It's the best form of birdwatching there is," she says. Like most falconers, it's something she felt drawn to with no prior exposure to the sport. "I have no country background or connection with birds of prey at all, yet from the moment I first saw one up close at a display as a child I was fascinated and knew I wanted to train one." Kirsty now owns her first bird, a sparrowhawk called Sheilah. "Nothing compares to the partnership you strike up with your bird. It becomes like an extension of you, in the hunt you become as one," she says.

Unique among field sports, falconry attracts little or no criticism from anti-hunting campaigners. Unlike hunting with hounds, or guns, hare coursing or any other sport where the endgame is a kill, the pairing of man and bird offers no real advantage to the bird as hunter; those who hunt with birds of prey cannot catch much more in a day than a wild bird would to feed itself.

Although its earliest origins are obscured, there are recorded mentions of falconry being practised in central Asia in 400BC. The activity reached its zenith here in the Middle Ages when there was a legal hierarchy dictating who could own and fly different types of bird. The 'long-winged' falcons such as peregrines, which fly high in the sky before folding their wings and 'stooping' downward to hit their prey at great speed, like feathered fighter jets, were reserved for the nobility. The woodland hunting 'short-wing' hawks were considered suitable for the lower orders (with blinding the punishment for peasants caught hunting with the 'wrong' birds). A lady could hunt with a merlin and for the knave a kestrel was deemed appropriate – hence the choice of 'Kes' for the working-class lad in the eponymous book and film. So esteemed were those who excelled in the keeping and training of these creatures that the royal household employed a Lord Falconer – who would sit fourth from the king at table. The royal birds would be taken into battle, where the falconer would stay at camp and catch food to feed the king and his troops.

Such gimlet-eyed hunters are his falcons that Stephen Lea feels confident enough to head out into the wilderness with his nine-year-old son, taking his two peregrines and English pointer dogs for days at a time. "We survive, as a team, on what the birds catch each day. The dogs are trained to seek out and point game while the birds hover high above. It's a partnership never found in nature, but the falcons learn that when the dog freezes on point, indicating game in front of it, there is something to be had. The dog learns to honour the falcon's right to the kill, and the falcon learns that it will always get a fair deal because we never take away the kill without offering another food reward as a trade."

Little about the falconer's art and tools has changed since it began: the leather anklets which fit around the birds legs, attached to them the long jesses (leather straps) by which the falconer holds the bird until he is ready to release it, the handmade bells so he can hear where she is if she flies out of sight and, of course, the distinctive falcon's hood. The word 'hoodwink', meaning to slip the hood on the bird's head to put it in a calm state, has passed into everyday language like so many other falconry terms ('fed up' is the state where a bird has had too much to eat and prefers to do nothing rather than hunt, to 'mantle' is to hide its kill by drooping its wings over it). Still handmade and sized to fit each individual bird, exquisitely jewelled versions of the hoods with sky-high price tags are now being produced to feed the renewed appetite for falconry among the world's elite. Russia's newly rich, keen to be seen with the ultimate status symbol of a bird of a prey, with its evocative symbolism of royalty and nobility, are paying vast sums for the best birds. And Russian Falconry Revival is a new magazine devoted to promoting the ancient art.

But there is also a darker side to the 'new' falconry. Car hawking, or 'drive-by' falconry, where birds of prey are flown from the open windows of fast-moving cars in urban areas after starlings, crows, magpies and other inedible birds for fun, is becoming a trend. In some built-up areas, inner-city youths are replacing staffies and pit bulls with birds of prey as the status pet of choice.

Last month, a two-year-old child suffered serious facial injuries from a Harris hawk being flown in a Hampshire park by its teenage handler, while a Jack Russell in Dundee had its tongue ripped out in similar circumstances. Flying a bird of prey from a moving vehicle is illegal in the UK, but a quick look on YouTube, where proud car hawkers post their home videos and comment on each other's kills, shows it's a trend very much on the up.

More traditional falconers will not talk about car hawking on the record for fear the publicity will encourage more city-based youngsters to obtain birds. "I've seen boy racers screaming round the same roundabout over and over again, sending birds out of the car window at crows," says one hawker. Another tells of a youth who deliberately engineered a pursuit so his hawk would chase its prey into a packed McDonald's restaurant, sending diners scattering. "These guys are yobs," says one experienced hawker. "Raptors need vast amounts of space away from people and urban areas to hunt, and are not suited to life in cities."

On the other side of the Atlantic, where car hawking falls into a legal grey area and is largely tolerated, falconer Chip Gentry, from North Carolina, flies his Harris hawks from his truck window. He has sympathy for his fellow drive-by hawking enthusiasts in the UK and believes that falconry should move with the times. "I don't listen to those who say it's non-traditional or unethical to hunt from the window of a car or truck. Honestly, I think it's just snobbery," he says. "Usually the arguments revolve around the fact that it creates an unfair advantage for the hawk as they can get much closer to their quarry concealed in the car and also because they start off with the borrowed speed of the vehicle. Well, to me it's evolution in action. Centuries ago people hunted from horseback with their falcon and I view my truck as my steel horse."

None of this debate matters, of course, to these haughty predators who deign to hunt with humans and tolerate our unfamiliar ways, yet never fully accept our world and remain wild to the end. "My hunting dogs are like my children," says Simon Curley, "our bond is deep and we understand and love each other. But much as I am thrilled and awed by the different birds I have trained, and while I know I will be a falconer till my dying day, there is no emotional connection with [the birds]. Respect and admiration, yes, but ultimately they live in a different world from humans."

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