Weekend with the birds who gave us booze

UK OUTDOORS: Falconry on horseback? Sounds like something to leave to the experts. Not at all, says Rupert Isaacson

In recent years falconry has recovered from a dying art practised by a few committed eccentrics, to become a growing sport with mass appeal. About 20 falconry schools in the UK now run regular courses, as well as "taster" days where beginners are taken out with an experienced falconer and allowed to fly a trained bird to hunt rabbits and pheasants. Although falconry is a blood sport, something in its beauty has prevented the "anti" lobby from targetting it. The inherent wildness of the birds, their physical beauty, and their soaring aerial acrobatic ability make them attractive to many people. Some falconry schools even report vegans signing up for courses, unable to resist the romance of striding through the countryside with hawk on fist.

Falconers use a variety of birds of prey and some of these are endangered species in the wild - peregrines, merlins and goshawks, for example. But all falconers' birds in Britain are captive-bred, raised from eggs in incubators.

To take up falconry is to re-enter the medieval world. Many words in common use today derive from falconry: booze comes from the name for a falcon's drinking bowl; a mews was originally the narrow alley in a castle where the falcons were kept.

Most other terms are unique to the art: you hold your falcon or hawk by a pair of "jesses" - leather straps attached to its legs with bells on them, so that you can locate the bird by its jingling if it flies into a tree for a sulk; you can attach the jesses to a "creance", or a long string, when flying the young bird in its early training; or you can lamely attempt to calm your bird if it "bates", or throws a tantrum on your wrist, hanging upside down from its jesses, screaming and tearing at any exposed flesh it can see. The only key falconer's words readily understandable to the layman are the glove (for your protection) and the hood (to keep the bird calm when travelling).

There are two types of raptor, or bird of prey; longwings - which comprise falcons - and shortwings, which comprise hawks and eagles. The longwings take their prey at high speed, whether through a stoop - dive bombing another bird from high above - or grabbing it after an aerial chase. Shortwings tend to catch their prey on the ground, dropping on it from a hovering position atop a thermal, or from a branch or ledge.

So much for an introduction. If the romance of falconry grabs you, the Scottish Academy of Falconry, which operates in the Border hills, is offering something exceptional - falconry on horseback. You can be a complete beginner to hawking, but must be able to ride passably well.

Mounted on a hunter, you carry your peregrine or saker falcons on the wrist as you ride. The prey are crows. Accompanied by two trained falconers, you de-hood the bird and let it go once the prey has been spotted. What follows is intensely exciting. The falcon soars high into the air above the flock of crows, which scatter, alarmed, across the sky. Then the chase is on. Diving from several hundred feet, the falcons hurtle into the midst of the crows, selecting one victim from among the many. Crows are highly agile flyers too and can often evade a falcon by such tricks as turning upside-down and falling out of the air, or even trying to fight back.

If you really get the bug, the staff can help you get started on the long road to becoming a falconer, putting you in touch with a school in your area where you can take a course to prepare you for owning and training your own bird. Most schools will then provide back-up during the complicated process of training and flying. However, if an experience is all you are after, a weekend's falconry on horseback makes an unforgettable, fiercely romantic memory.

FACT FILE

Scottish Academy of Falconry, Bonchester Bridge, Hawick, Roxburghshire, TD9 9TB, Scotland, tel/fax (01450) 860666.

Accommodation

April-Nov. Double rooms in country house. Full board. Special diets catered for on request.

Booking

pounds 50 non-refundable deposit. Book three weeks in advance, but late bookings up to 48 hours in advance can be taken if available.

Children All ages welcome.

Insurance

Guests should provide holiday insurance.

Safety Staff trained in first aid.

Tariffs

Weekend falconry on horseback, pounds 250 all-in.

Access

Off the B6357 south of Bonchester Bridge. Trains to Hawick (from Carlisle), buses to Jedburgh or Hawick. Pickups can be arranged by centre (pounds 5 charge).

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