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Hawking with the hooded killers who live to prey: Oliver Gillie joins a hunting party in Scotland to witness the ancient art of falconry

THREE FALCONS balanced elegantly on the back seat, leaning first to one side and then to the other as the car negotiated the bends of a steep Highland road. In the air these birds are lethal hunting machines, but with leather hoods on their heads they were patient, uncomplaining passengers.

Stephen Frank takes his peregrine falcons out almost every day to hunt for grouse on the hills and moors near Dornoch, north-east Scotland. Grouse have been scarce this year, but at Forsinard in Caithness there are always some to be found and Andy Hollidge, an assistant keeper on the estate, hunts them when he has time.

Out on the moor, the falcons were taken from the back seat of the car and put on a cadge, a wooden frame with legs carried by the cadger. The hunting party set off across the moor with Mr Hollidge carrying Wallop, his three-year-old peregrine, ready to fly from his thickly gloved hand.

'I called him Wallop because in his first season he knocked down 47 partridges but only caught seven of them,' Mr Hollidge said. Wallop is a male peregrine, known as a tiercel, which is smaller than the female.

Two prize pointers, Wizzer and Gero, raced ahead as the party trudged across the rough, water- logged moor. The dogs bounded through the heather, working together in search of grouse. Suddenly Wizzer froze, edged forward and froze again with tail sticking straight out.

'We have a point,' Mr Hollidge said. Somewhere a few yards ahead of Wizzer, a grouse was hiding in the heather. He untied the falcon, removed its leather hood and launched it into the air from his outstretched arm.

The tiercel made a couple of low passes over the dog and then circled to gain height, making a tinkling sound from a little bell attached to its leg.

As the falcon gained height, Mr Hollidge made a detour to approach the grouse from the opposite side to the dog, upwind. When the peregrine reached about 150 to 200 feet, high enough for its dive, Mr Hollidge ran forward to raise the grouse. It broke cover, flying low, but before it had gone more than about 10 yards the tiercel hit it. The grouse recovered momentarily but Wallop went after it and pulled it down.

'The grouse always flies off upwind,' Mr Frank said. 'The wind speed is lower close to the ground, so by keeping low and flying upwind the grouse has a chance to get away.

'We try to flush the grouse when the falcon is on the upwind section of its circle - that gives it the best chance.'

The hunting party caught up with Wallop in a small hollow where it was standing on the grouse. It had ripped off the bird's head and was eating its brain.

'They like the brain and eye best,' Mr Frank said. 'After they have eaten that they pluck the bird completely before gorging themselves.'

Mr Hollidge took a dead one- day-old chick, the staple diet of captive falcons, from his bag and deftly put it under Wallop's beak. As the bird began to eat, he put a tie around its leg to secure it and removed the grouse, putting it in his game pouch. After hooding the falcon, the party moved off in search of more grouse.

The bag for the day was six grouse, a very modest number compared with what might be expected from a day's shooting.

'It was a difficult day for the dogs and falcons because there was no wind,' Mr Frank said. 'The dogs had difficulty picking up the scent and the falcons had to work hard to gain height. But each bird has taken at least one grouse so we've done well.'

Photographs: Dillon Bryden

(Photographs omitted)