'It's just us and the hawks: the rabbits are lying low'

There's no more exciting way to spend a day on the moors. Madeleine Kingsley learns the art of falconry
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The Independent Online
A bird in the hand - or rather on your fist - is unexpectedly thrilling. Tabasco, the Harris hawk whose leather jesses I have just learned to lace through my clumsy fingers, is 920 grams of pure hunting power. She'll cruise at 40 miles an hour. Her watchful eye defies you to underrate her autonomy, but she flies happily enough to my wrist for a hunk of rabbit meat.

In the two hours we've been acquainted, I've discovered the art of "throwing" Tabasco when she "baits" or beats her wings, ducking away from my hand to pursue her prey. I have been less successful at encouraging her to swoop down from a tree and glide behind me in pursuit of a dummy rabbit on a string. Disdaining the chase, Tabasco lands effortlessly on the decoy. "You're too slow," says falconry tutor Philip Lovel. "That was a very tired rabbit."

None the less, I am much more taken with my first taste of hawk sport than the novice whom Cilla Black recently sent north to sample it for Blind Date. "She was a city girl who kept shrieking 'Get off!' at the hawk," Lovel says. "She reacted as if a flying brick had landed on her arm. The cameraman loved it." Not so the hawks, who proved reluctant to fly for her: "Harris hawks are generally more biddable than falcons. But unless you come with confidence, they can lead you up the garden path."

Our day's sport (pounds 80 to for a morning's lesson and an afternoon's hunting rabbit on the moors) brings no such trauma. We (four rookie falconers, including a South Shropshire farmer and the county coroner) begin our training on the cricket green at Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire. Lovel and his partner Stephen Tyler, introduce us to our partners for the day, four young birds named after their Mexican origins: Chimichanga and Refried Bean are the males; the females are Taco and Tabasco: "The males may be first in at the kill," we're told "but they are also first off, leaving the prey to the females."

Not that going home with dozens of rabbits is the main purpose of a day's sport: "If you went out shooting and got one rabbit it'd be a dismal day indeed" they say. "With a hawk, however, the real buzz is getting a good flight, and watching a bird of prey flying after the rabbit as it chinks and twists right across a field. If the quarry beats the hawk after a really good chase, you're still left feeling a strong connection to the wild. That's what really hooks you to the sport."

Lovel (who is a wildlife cameraman as well as a falconer) and Tyler (a former management consultant) are disarmingly lyrical evangelists for their sport. As a boy, Lovel looked after a succession of injured birds - mostly owls and falcons "brought for my father, a Hampshire doctor, to fix up". He bred from the kestrels and flew his first hawk when he was 10. Tyler rides his own ex-racehourse. Despite the trappings of plus- fours and white County Land Rover, they are utterly committed to their birds.

Falconers have to be dedicated. "You can't put these birds away in a cupboard when not in use, like a fishing rod or a shotgun," says Tyler. "We have to fly them up on the moors for at least an hour a day every day of the year."

Training young birds is also an exacting business: "It begins with 'manning' or getting an altogether wild bird so used to you and your surroundings that it's bombproof." Lovel and Tyler will sit up late with the birds on their first day, making coffee with one hand. They'll feed them bits of meat, so they gradually begin to associate glove and meat, and look to their handlers for food. "But you don't want to create too close a relationship," they warn, "or the birds will view you as a parent and fail to bond with the others in their hunting group."

Once a hawk is ready, the handler keeps her on the leash and starts coaxing her to step from perch to fist, gradually increasing the range of the "creance" or long cord until she's flying 50 metres to the fist, without overshooting. "And that," says Tyler, "is when you take your heart in your mouth, undo the string and pray she'll come to you when she's free." Every falconer's worst fear is losing his bird - hence a bell and tiny transmitter, attached to its leg.

High on Barden Moor that afternoon I tune in to the falconer's obsession. We work mostly in silence: it's just the six of us, the hawks, and a brace of ferrets. Tyler has pointed out a huge brown scar on a moorside fold - a coney conurbation. But the rabbits are lying low today. Sometimes 15 minutes pass without a quiver in the grass, even though Tyler sets the ferrets down the rabbit holes to flush them out. We fly the hawks off dry stone walls, then shoosh through the reeds, savouring the coiled- spring vigilance on our aching fists. Timing - the trick of sending the bird from your hand just as their excitement at a running rabbit peaks, is all-important. It's tempting to release too soon.

In three hours we bag just seven rabbits, but are exhilarated by perhaps 10 times as many flights. Nature may be red in beak and claw, but hunters work hard for the pot. Each time a hawk makes its kill, Lovel and Tyler must coax bird off prey with a meat titbit. The catch is never wasted: "It's rabbit with everything," Tyler says "pie, casserole and canelloni."

Finally we break for the day, heady with accomplishment. The coroner vows to come out again the very next day. Along with the milk-drinking ferrets we hunker down for refreshments among the thistles. Tea in a paper cup and cookies straight from the packet have never tasted so good.

Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey, North Yorks: 01756 710441.Guests pay pounds 160 per person for two nights with dinner, bed and breakfast, plus pounds 70 a day for falconry. Hawksport: 01756 797843.