Outdoors: A bird in the hand

Falconry is more popular now than it has been for decades. Despite complex legislation protecting wild birds, and the heavy demands of ownership, more people are learning how to care for and fly a hawk, and maybe catch a rabbit for the pot
Falconry enjoys a glamour that appeals to all romantics. It is the oldest and perhaps the noblest of all country sports, practised for 4,000 years and with a lore and language that date back to the days when peregrines were pampered in the royal mews, and the kestrel was a bird flown by knaves.

Though such distinctions have become blurred, in falconry as in society, hawking remains a pastime for the individualist; a solitary, uncompetitive pursuit demanding skill and patience in the training of a creature that will never lose its wild instincts and cannot be bullied to perform. Whilst still generally seen as a somewhat rarefied, eccentric pastime, hawking has been enjoying a remarkable revival in this country. Whereas 20 years ago only a handful of enthusiasts kept the ancient art alive, at least 10,000 people now own or regularly fly birds of prey and a variety of courses are on offer to the novice.

Julie Ross, who runs the Edinburgh Bird of Prey Centre in Midlothian, says hawking is an art, rather than a craft that can be mastered by adherence to strict methods. "However much you've studied, you're still learning all the time," she explains. "You have to gain the bird's respect, and it makes you feel quite humble when it finally decides to trust you." She has more than 40 birds at the centre and all are regularly flown, allowing visitors to marvel at the swooping flight of lanner falcons, the power of red-tailed buzzards and the antics of small owls. Those wishing to learn more are encouraged to take just an hour's tuition, handling birds and learning how to tie the vital "falconer's knot", which must be mastered single-handed and with eyes closed, while a fractious bird perches on the wrist. The novice also has an opportunity to fly birds into woodland and, more challengingly, to ensure their safe return. Hawks, it would appear, are somewhat lazy creatures and a well-trained bird will generally prefer a hand-fed morsel to the uncertainties of freedom in the skies.

For those who pass this initiation test without their knots unravelling or flinching from the grip of talons, the next stage is a day-long course of individual tuition. The morning may be spent studying the birds and learning more about the responsibilities of ownership, from the complexities of licences and current legislation to the practicalities of housing, diet, exercise and hygiene. Then, after lunch, it's out into the fields to fly the birds and hunt for rabbits. As a form of pest control, falconry is not particularly impressive and the novice may be lucky to return with a single bunny in the bag, but in Julie's view it's not the kill that counts, but the quality of slip and chase. "You're out there on the hill," she says, "a bird on your hand and a trusty wee ferret in your bag, with not a car or mobile phone for miles around. That's my idea of heaven."

A single day's tuition cannot, of course, make anyone a falconer, and pupils are encouraged to return for further lessons and experience before they even contemplate the purchase of a bird. A hawk can live for 30 years and to stay in peak condition will need regular, demanding exercise. True falconry, with peregrines or lanners, requires access to extensive moorland rich in grouse or pheasant, but even indolent and easy-going Harris hawks should, in Julie's view, be taken out to hunt for rabbits at least once or twice a week. "With any hawk, you get back only what you're prepared to give, and there's no pleasure to be had from an unhappy bird." To fly a goshawk from a mountainside and watch it soar 600 feet into the sky is an unforgettable experience, but for those who cannot guarantee years of commitment and responsibility, Julie recommends an owl. Not, for sure, an eagle owl, an avian Rottweiler that can kill a fox or carry off a baby deer, but perhaps a barn owl. "You can fly it from your own back yard," she says, "and in the evening it will be happy just sitting with you watching the TV."

Where to learn falconry

Edinburgh Bird of Prey Centre, Melville Nurseries, Lasswade, Midlothian EI118 1AZ (0131-654 1721). Introductory days: pounds 75, year round. Also hunting days, held September to March; owl days; hourly tuition.

National Birds of Prey Centre, Newent, Gloucestershire, (01531 820286). Falconry experience day, pounds 110; five-day course, pounds 425: intensive course covering training, flying and hunting, management, veterinary care and other falconry skills.

Ray Prior, 4 Hackney Bottom, Hampstead Norreys, near Newbury, Berkshire (01635 200545). Individual hourly or daily tuition.

Hawk Conservancy, near Andover, Hampshire (10264 772252). A variety of courses is available.

NB It is illegal to catch or keep a wild bird of prey, but some captive- bred birds may be purchased from registered dealers. Inspectors regularly visit the owners of protected species to check on their welfare.