Let us prey

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The Independent Online
The falcon made a thrilling sight, but the speed with which she hurtled about the sky was terrifying. One moment she was circling overhead; the next she was half a mile away, a speck in the distance. The chances of her ever coming back seemed remote.

Shadow's weight is critical. If she gets too thin, she becomes susceptible to disease, and if she is too fat, she will not bother to hunt, but may well fly off and sit for hours in a tree, ignoring overtures from below. Careful feeding (with raw meat) is thus essential. On the day I met her she was tipping the scales at 2lb 1oz, half an ounce above her ideal hunting trim; nevertheless, she performed with considerable panache, and led us a merry dance over the rolling hills north of Cirencester.

Shadow is a three-year-old peregrine falcon, the pride and joy of Henry Robinson, an agreeably eccentric landowner who farms on the Cotswolds. He gave her the name because of her colouring, but his children assumed he had borrowed it from the combatant in Gladiators, and when he asked "What's Gladiators?", they fell about.

Like all the hawks being flown in Britain today, she was bred in captivity; but she has turned out "quite a tough character", and this Henry ascribes to the fact that she was "hacked" - taken from her parents as a fledgeling, and put out with others on a hack board, or artificial nest, in the country.

There, in a secluded spot, she grew up without sight of humans. Food arrived daily, posted down a tube from a hide, and the young hawks made their initial flights, but always returned to the nest. After a month, when they were flying strongly and learning to kill, they were caught up and brought back to base for training.

How do you train a hawk? "With food," said Henry. "Everything's done with food. That's how you establish a bond. You can't punish a hawk. The only concept it understands is that of reward."

The essential trick it must learn is to "wait on" - to circle above its human partner, so that if he or his dog flushes game, it can use gravity to accelerate downwards in pursuit. By carrying a lure such as a dead rabbit or pheasant, and throwing it up when the hawk is satisfactorily overhead, the human being can gradually teach the bird that it gets a reward for waiting on in the right place.

Henry, now in his mid-forties, was smitten by the falconry bug when still at school. Then at Worcester College, Oxford, he kept a Harris hawk - "like a faster buzzard" - which he used to fly at moorhens up and down the banks of the Cherwell.

After sundry reminiscences - including one about an earlier peregrine, which disappeared on a southerly wind and turned up three years later near Glasgow - we set off to try our luck. With a leather hood over her head, Shadow sat quietly on a perch in the back of the Land Rover. The bells attached to the leather jesses on her legs tinkled as we went over bumps, and Henry warned me that, if we got a stoop, she "might go a bit ballistic".

On a headland above a deep valley he brought the falcon out on to his gloved wrist and removed her hood, revealing magnificent eyes, huge and dark. Then he slipped her jesses and away she went, sweeping up into the wind.

Henry's spaniel had started working down a rough spinney ahead of him. Suddenly partridges called. Then two got up. Henry bounded forward, leaping over tussocks, yelling, "Hi! Hi! Hi!" and various unprintable objurgations. Like a jet-propelled arrowhead, Shadow appeared from nowhere. Down she swung in a vicious dive. She overtook one partridge as if it had been stationary, missed it by inches when it made a desperate left turn, swung up again and vanished over a wood on the far side of the valley.

Undismayed, Henry headed back towards the Land Rover for his telemetry kit, to make contact with the radio transmitter which Shadow carries on one leg. But before we reached the vehicle we heard the glad sound of bells, and in she swept, to make a few lazy passes all round us and land on the dead pheasant which he threw up as a lure.

In the afternoon another flight was enlivened by the arrival of the Cotswold Hunt. Henry was already yelling and bounding when hounds came pouring through a covert. Seconds later the air was full of pheasants speeding in all directions, and after another near miss in our view, Shadow flashed away over a conifer wood, to disappear again.

With that many targets airborne, it seemed highly probable that she had killed something; and sure enough, her radio signal led us deep into the wood, where we found her on the ground, eating a hen pheasant which she had taken out of the air.

Coming home, I felt I had caught a glimpse of another world. For a few minutes I had witnessed the survival of one of mankind's most ancient skills, and understood the thrill of hunting in loose partnership with one of the wildest and most beautiful creatures on earth.

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