Sport of kings takes wing once again

It's boom time for falconry as breeders struggle to cope with upsurge of interest among the young

It famously captivated the heart of "hopeless case" Billy Casper in the 1969 film Kes and now the ancient art of falconry is working its magic on a new generation of children.

Falconers across the country say interest in birds of prey is soaring, especially among younger people. New bird-handling courses, a national qualification scheme and an increase in the number of aviaries offering days out are all helping to broaden the appeal of what was traditionally a sport of kings.

Greg Whittaker, of York Falconry, says he has to turn people away because he cannot keep up with requests for the Harris hawks he breeds: "We have more and more people ringing us and we have to tell them the birds are spoken for." He says the new Lantra Falconry Award, a nationally recognised qualification scheme launched in conjunction with the Hawk Board, the sport's governing body, is partly behind the rise in interest.

Around 25,000 people in Britain now keep birds of prey, according to Jim Chick, the Hawk Board's chairman. "There are definitely more young people, which is down to one species, the Harris hawk, which has been brought to the UK in the past 25 to 30 years and is a very family-friendly bird."

In Suffolk, an owl sanctuary started youth courses in falconry four years ago. A Hampshire-based falconry display team, which uses birds of prey to help schoolchildren understand a range of subjects from science and numeracy to conservation and history, is hoping to expand the scheme nationwide later this year.

Even hotels are getting in on the scene. Bovey Castle, in Dartmoor, has just invited a new feathered guest to stay: Artemis, a cross between a golden and a steppe eagle. The plan is for guests to borrow him for hunting when the season starts in the autumn.

Judy Wrighte, who runs the Falconry for Schools project for Falconhigh in Brambridge, Hampshire, says the birds are especially popular in schools where children have learning problems or trouble interacting socially: "It's just magical to see the change in behaviour when they see the birds. These are kids with ADHD or Asperger's; they become inspired and their anxieties reduce."

Matt Dunn, a 17-year-old from Chandler's Ford, near Eastleigh, Hampshire, and one of three Falconhigh apprentices, explains how he became "infatuated" aged 11, when he saw a falconry display at his school. "It really took over my life. People think of the birds as killing robots but they're more like dogs, with individual likes and dislikes," he says. "They've changed my life," he adds, echoing the main refrain of A Kestrel for a Knave, the Barry Hines novel on which Ken Loach based Kes.

More prosaically, birds of prey are also popular natural pest controllers, used to cull pigeons, gulls, rooks, crows and rabbits.