Flying for beginners

A trip to Gleneagles usually involves a round of golf. But Jackie Hunter discovered that there are other highs to be had at the Perthshire hotel
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The Independent Travel

Driving north along the A9 from Edinburgh, it's hard to distinguish the fog-shrouded mountains from the low-slung clouds. The sky bears down; the horizon has all but vanished. Rain is thrown against the windscreen like handfuls of gravel, and bounces off the road. It's June, and this is what they call summer in the loamy, green heart of Scotland.

Driving north along the A9 from Edinburgh, it's hard to distinguish the fog-shrouded mountains from the low-slung clouds. The sky bears down; the horizon has all but vanished. Rain is thrown against the windscreen like handfuls of gravel, and bounces off the road. It's June, and this is what they call summer in the loamy, green heart of Scotland.

Arriving at Gleneagles Hotel half an hour later, the sun reappears and the landscape seems less wild. Although the hotel looks more forbidding than luxurious, the grounds are exquisite. Even the rhododendron bushes, stripped by the summer tempest, drop their pink petals in a neat pattern on the lawn.

But it would take more than a downpour to deter Gleneagles's guests from enjoying a round of golf. Golf, after all, is the hotel's raison d'être. When the resort, built by the former Caledonian Rail Company, opened 80 years ago, it was described as "a Riviera in the Highlands". Between the First and the Second World Wars, those who could afford it dedicated themselves to the pursuit of leisure: yachting at Cowes, polo at Deauville and then heading north in August for grouse shooting and golf. By the 1950s Gleneagles was a fixture on the society calendar, beloved of princes, aristocracy and rich Americans.

Fifty years later and these stunning championship courses in the foothills of the Grampians are still dotted with golfers in all weathers, year round, although they are more likely to be businessmen on a jolly than holidaying aristocrats.

However, while I have every respect for Scotland's national game, I have no desire to play it, or even to watch it from the sidelines. I'd rather not have to listen to anyone talking about their handicap, thanks. So you may wonder why I have come to Gleneagles...

Let me paint you a picture. While the golfing guests are strolling across the greens, looking cool, tanned and smart in pastel sports shirts, I am sweating up a steep hillside half a mile away, in muddy wellies and an old Barbour jacket, with a face like a boiled beetroot. I look like one - maybe both - of the Two Fat Ladies from the television show, stalking their lunch to cook it in a vast pie. For someone like me, who has never hunted anything wilder than a pair of shoes in the Selfridges sale, this is a bit of a turn-up.

And actually I'm having a rather good time. I have just remembered that I spent the first 18 years of my life in the countryside. It's all coming back to me: fields, baling twine, the Young Farmers summer ball - bring it on! I can do this. And I need to. I am here to hunt with birds of prey with the British School of Falconry, which is based at Gleneagles. My companions on this windy, sun-baked slope are a flock of shaggy-arsed sheep, two Harris hawks called Oddjob and Pepper, and a falconer named Will, who drove us through the Perthshire hills in his 4x4 while the caged birds screamed in the back, hungry for the kill.

The falconry school was founded in 1982 by Steve and Emma Ford, an English couple who have trained falcons since childhood. The Fords live nearby with their dogs, horses and menagerie of birds. The school is home to 22 raptors, bred in captivity and brought to Gleneagles to be trained as hunters. Will tutors groups or individuals in handling the birds within the grounds of the hotel and then, if they wish, takes them out to hunt.

My two-hour lesson was a delight. I had been nervous about getting close to a flapping, screeching, pecking mass of muscle and feather. But when Harold the hawk hopped on to my leather gauntlet, he was as light as, well, a feather, and as gentle as a baby.

The relationship between a falconer and his hawk is an uncomplicated one. Food is the sole motivation for the hunting hawk and it is trained with morsels of raw meat, carried in the falconer's satchel. Place some meat on your raised glove and the bird will swoop down, landing on your arm as it snaps up the food.

Our quarry today is rabbits - cute, fluffy, baby rabbits. The ground ripples with them because there are warrens the size of London council estates beneath these fields. My job is to help flush out the prey.

So off we go, wading through clumps of thistle and nettle, scouring the ground for rabbits, which often crouch stock-still in the undergrowth. "When you see one, shout 'rabbit!' really loudly," says Will. "Does that give them a head start?" I ask. "No," Will explains patiently. "The hawks are trained to respond to the word in the same way as a dog would when you say 'walkies!'."

It's not long before Will spots a white tail flickering across the field. "Rabbit!" he bellows, and Pepper, from her vantage point atop a tree, swoops into action. She descends to the bolting bunny's back before it can escape down a hole. Some hawks do this at 100mph.

Pepper's claws pierce its flesh and she cloaks her wings to shield the catch. Her instinct is to gorge on it, which would leave her sated for days. But, because Will needs her to be fit for daily hunting, he tempts her away with a snack from his satchel. With Pepper distracted, Will dispatches the rabbit by snapping its neck, before placing it in his huntsman's sack. (The kill goes to a nearby wildlife sanctuary, to feed animals unable to hunt for themselves.) Like racehorses and prizefighters, hawks need to be kept lean and hungry. Will weighs them daily to monitor their "flying weight" - at which they hunt best.

It's a bird-eat-bunny world out here, and not for the sentimental, the squeamish, or anyone whose lip trembles whenever they hear the song "Bright Eyes". Blood, mud and sheep shit are the territory. Even so, Will says, it's usually women that most enjoy hawking; perhaps because of their natural empathy they engage more readily with the birds than men do, he says. Hawking requires a subtler set of skills than grouse shooting. I would recommend it to golf widows who are bored with the hotel spa.

After an hour or so we've bagged five rabbits and a crow. The hawks often go after other birds. Pepper spotted one hopping about on the ground and flew above it, circling away from it. Suddenly wheeling round, her long tail giving her precision steering, she dropped like a boulder in a Roadrunner cartoon and the crow didn't know what had hit it.

Wild buzzards are also common up here, and often go on the defensive when they spot a Harris hawk. "Never mind the buzzards," says Will. "They're just protecting their territory. It would be rare for one of them to attack a hawk." If the buzzard did instigate an aerial dogfight, only one bird would go home in the bodybag - and it wouldn't be Pepper or Oddjob.

"You might think that being a male falconer is a great means of impressing girls down the pub," Will tells me, "but for the first two years you do mostly, um, dirty work."

"You mean shovelling shit, Will?"

"Well, yes," he says.

I assure him that the same is true in most professions - certainly the ones worth doing. Although not many of us earn our stripes by gutting rabbits.

Back at the hotel mid-afternoon, I return my borrowed coat and wellies and say goodbye to Will and his birds. Weary, muddy and with a hint of dead rabbit wafting about me, I trudge past the still-pristine golfers slicing balls through the air, and return to my room. I head straight for the power-shower, then refuel with fruit cake so heavily laced with whisky it ought to carry a warning for any guest planning to drive a golf-cart. Not me, obviously.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest airport is Edinburgh, 50 minutes away - hotel chauffeur service costs £93. The nearest train station is Gleneagles (London to Inverness line). National rail enquiries: 08457 48 49 50

STAYING THERE

The Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland. (0800 389 3737 (UK freephone) or 01764 662231; www.gleneagles.com). From May to October, double rooms at Gleneagles Hotel start from £330, suites from £770 all including breakfast.

ACTIVITIES

A 45-minute introductory falconry lesson with tuition from the British School of Falconry costs £59 per person. A half-day's hawking (2 hours 30 mins) costs £135 per person. Booking recommended.

Golf packages are available for players from beginner to professional level, on the King's, Queen's and PGA Centenary courses and the Wee Course. See website or telephone for a brochure.

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