The use of birds of prey to catch wild animals dates back thousands of years and is thought to have originated in the Far East. Falconry in the British Isles is thought to date back as far as 860BC, some 1150 or so years ago.
Originally falconry would have been practiced across the classes, but with the privatisation of land, with the arrival of the Normans, and the subsequent change in hunting rights on the land, falconry became a sport for the upper classes. The higher up you were in the social hierarchy the larger bird you could hunt with. Emperors would hunt with Eagles or Vultures, Princes with Peregrine Falcons and Priests with Sparrowhawks. I like to think it was a bit like the ancient equivalent of showing off your Ferrari at the golf club whilst all the poor folk drive their BMWs (which is of course not a very gentlemanly thing to do and so that kind of behaviour is not encouraged).
I was fortunate to recently stay up at the Gleneagles Hotel in Auchterarder for a few days which was quite a treat in itself. Within the grounds is the British School of Falconry where they keep all sorts of Birds of Prey from Golden Eagles to Peregrine Falcons and Harris Hawks. I have always loved birds but it was here that I was able to do something quite special, hunt with a pair of Harris Hawks.
Harris Hawks are quite special in that they will hunts in packs where as other birds of prey will hunt alone. Because of this they are able to take on prey much bigger than themselves including rabbits and hare. The falconer that took me out, a lovely Scottish chap named Richard with a stereotypical Scottish red beard and soft Scottish accent, told me that he had even caught a goose with a pair of hawks!
After being introduced to the birds and learning the initial handling techniques, the birds for the day were selected and transferred to the back of the Range Rover so that we could get them up into the mountains surrounding Gleneagles. A short drive through the Scottish wilds and we selected what looked like prime pheasant country.
After attaching transmitters to the birds we set them high on the roof of a near barn to give them a good vantage point then man and bird scanned the land for signs of movement. Initially to my eyes the country looked like there was nothing whatsoever in it, bar a few crows, but soon my eyes tuned in and started looking for movement in the grass and bushes. It wasn’t long before we saw what looked like the elusive pheasant.
Keen to bag ourselves a pheasant we lured the Hawks to our gloves and carried them further down the field – birds are typically lazy creatures and will appreciate a free lift, and we wanted to them to conserve their energy for chasing our quarry. As we got closer we became nearer an edge of trees and so launching our feathered friends up high would give them both a vantage point for spotting pheasants or rabbits but would also allow them to gain enough speed to catch whatever they had seen.
Our role as falconers was then to keep the birds close and walk through the long grass and the bushes to disturb any unsuspecting creatures acting almost like beaters for the hawks.
It wasn’t long before we got our first bit of action. We spotted a couple of cock pheasants who seemed oblivious to our approach due to being wholly occupied in fighting each other – most likely in battle for a gal! As we neared we launched our hawks and in seconds they were on the tail of one of the pheasants. As soon as you could blink an eye the younger of the two hawks disappeared into the grass and seemingly captured our quarry. We hot-foot it over to see our prize when all of a sudden the pheasant manages to break away and flew off into the distance never to be seen again. Hawks 0 : Pheasant 1
One lucky pheasant!!
We had a number of other close calls during our hunt, but each time the pheasants escaped missing a few feathers. But for me, the enjoyment was not so much about the kill, but more about seeing these magnificent birds hunting out in the countryside doing what they love and what comes naturally to them. Man and bird working in harmony for a common goal.
It is at times like those, when exposed to the elements surrounded by beautiful Scottish scenery with a pair of hawks flying with you when you really appreciate nature and at it’s very best. We disturbed a deer whilst on our hunt and didn’t notice it until it was a mere 3 or 4 meters away. I’m pretty sure that the deer will have seen us coming much sooner. We saw buzzards flying overhead (which although stunningly beautiful to watch, will have done us no favours when it came to making the pheasants easy to catch). As we flew our hawks through a forest area we heard all the song birds burst into warning call letting the others know that a couple of hawks were on the loose. All these things were a joy to witness and gave a feeling of being close to nature.
Yes, we were hunting, but we weren’t blasting around the countryside banging away with guns. We were hunting like gentlemen throughout the years, hunting with our birds as nature intended them to. Beautiful killing machines peacefully and quietly moving through the countryside looking for their lunch, disturbing nobody and leaving no trace. One of the most enjoyable things I have had the pleasure of doing and I will without doubt hunt with hawks again.