The Soaring Popularity of Falconry in Britain
The hawk is perched on my gauntleted fist like an overgrown child being made to sit on an adult's lap. It straddles my thumb and forefinger with its craggy yellow claws—talons intended to pierce thick fur and pinion a swift-running hare in mid-flight. Its unblinking eyes—the color of burned butter—glare at me. It emits a series of high, thin shrieks that seem to express a homicidal fury. "Carry her the way you would a pint of beer across a pub, Fernanda," Steve Wright reminds me. I do so, imagining a pint of beer that might at any moment rip off my nose.
The pint of beer in question is Hermione, a fourteen-year-old Harris's hawk. Wright, one of England’s growing number of falconers, describes her as a turbocharged killer in the field and a "psychotic bitch" at home. He himself has a torn lip from the last time he tried to kiss her. ("Why exactly did he want to kiss her?" my husband, Alastair, wonders.)
Alastair and I have come to Shropshire, in a remote corner of England by the Welsh border, for a weekend's hawking. It's my second season of hunting with Hermione, and each time I'm amazed by the imperious ferocity of the creature, the beauty of her russet-and-mahogany plumage, the mad propulsion with which she rockets after prey, the precision of her strike. Fighter jets were surely modeled after Hermione.
As raptor groupies go, I'm a latecomer.
A decade ago, my family and I lived in a corner of rural France where birds of prey abounded. Driving our children to the village school, we'd see flocks of hawks grazing on earthworms in the fields. Come spring, we went into the Vercors Mountains to spot peregrine falcons nesting.
Rabbit or Pheasant
Three years ago, when we moved to London, the shock of city life was made tolerable by the discovery that falconry—defined by the U.K.'s Hawk Board as "the pursuit of wild quarry in its natural state by means of trained birds of prey"— was making a comeback in Britain, fueled by the popularity of the Harris's hawk, a New World breed which is lower maintenance than its showier cousins. Just a couple of hours from Piccadilly Circus, you can not only peer at a falcon through binoculars but actually fly one from your fist and expect it to bring back a rabbit or a pheasant for your dinner.
All my life I've had a sneaking taste for blood sports peculiar in a born-and-bred Manhattanite: a hankering that has led me to haunt Gypsy cockfights in the Pyrenees and bullfights in Mexico, and to break my ribs in the delusion that I could ride a horse well enough to go foxhunting in Ireland. I like animals that don't like me. Falconry sounded just my cup of tea.
A brief investigation led me to Wright, a former guide dog trainer and veteran falconer in his sixties. A piratical-looking fellow whose gruffly jovial banter conceals a wealth of stubborn learning, Wright lives outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where he runs falconry courses. From October until March, he takes customers up to Shropshire and Scotland to hunt with his Harris's hawks.
Falconry is one of the most ancient sports. In the Louvre, you can see an Anatolian funerary stele from the eighth century B.C. in which a boy called Tarhunpiyas, standing on his mother's lap, holds a goshawk on a leash, much as a thousand years later Goya's scarlet-suited toddler holds a pet magpie on a string. In Europe, its heyday was the Late Middle Ages. Falconers tell you of the fifteenth-century Boke of Saint Albans, which lists raptors suitable to each rank in society: an eagle for an emperor, a peregrine falcon for an earl, a sparrow hawk for a priest, a merlin for a lady. Wright more prosaically describes the bird of prey as our ancestors' "shopping cart." "Up until the fifteenth century, it was a fairly serviceable way of feeding the family—all you needed was a bird, a dog, and a bit of land to tramp across." But as guns became widespread, raptors were marginalized to a specialty item.
In 1937, when T. H. White (author of the Arthurian series The Once and Future King) wrote The Goshawk, an account of his sleepless nights "manning" a young hawk, he could describe falconry as a "dying sport." White, teaching himself from an early-seventeenth-century treatise, "had never met a living falconer, nor seen a hawk that had been trained." Today, Wright tells me, there are three other falconers living in his Warwickshire village, and an estimated 25,000 throughout Britain. The opposition to falconry is less vocal than that to foxhunting, which was all but banned in 2004 by the House of Commons. (Paradoxically, that law's loopholes have meant that many foxhunts now use birds of prey along with dogs to catch the foxes.)
The falconry revival is one symptom of England's back-to-nature quest, a postindustrial society's hunger to reconnect with ancient rural traditions. It's the same unease with consumerism and virtual reality that makes City traders retrain as farriers and saddle fitters or flock to butchery-and-charcuterie courses, that makes urban diners want to know where their dandelion salads were sourced. This nostalgia has driven the revival of village cricket, and the descent upon London in 2002 of a half million Wellington-booted protesters marching against the proposed ban on foxhunting. It's a trend predicated on the belief that there was a time when life was more authentic, values fiercer. When people hunted for what they ate.
It’s a misty November morning, and we are standing at the foot of Caer Caradoc, a bare hill crowned with a red-rocked Iron Age fort where the Celtic chieftain Caractatus made his last stand against the Romans. Shropshire is one of the least populated counties in England: This time of year it presents us with a fabulously wild borderland of russet-gold bracken rising to meet volcanic peaks, then falling away to cultivated valleys strewn with Norman castles and Saxon churches. Shaggy brown-and-white sheep meander past; a pale blue-eyed border collie wags his tail inquiringly and is shooed away. On a clear day, you can see Wales.
We spent the previous night in the neighboring hamlet of Enchmarsh with Roy and Kay Davies, retired dairy farmers who offer their luxurious home to Wright and his hawking cronies. We sat up late over Kay's veal goulash and lemon tart and a couple of bottles of Beaujolais. This morning Roy, mild and sociable, is coming out with us to watch.
Our birds are hunched in the back of Wright's four-wheel drive: two grumpy females, each tethered to its traveling perch. I greet Hermione and am reintroduced to Morgana, who, when I met her last spring, was a newly laid egg in Wright's Warwickshire aviary. British falconers can work only with birds bred in captivity; in the United States, where falconers must serve an apprenticeship of two years and be licensed, the some four thousand devotees of the sport have to take their first bird from the wild and release it after their first season. Only then can they use captive-bred birds, though most continue to take them from the wild. Morgana retains the fawn-and-mahogany dappling of a young hawk but, according to her breeder, is "keen as mustard."
Alastair and I are supposed to hunt these birds interchangeably, but in fact, we stick to our favorites. Needless to say, I go for mad old Hermione, while Alastair favors the spring chicken. Scoundrel, a young liver-and-white Brittany spaniel, is whimpering with excitement. In a cage are the ferrets—used to flush out rabbits—high-strung, slipping through one's fingers like furry anacondas.
The birds are swapped from mews jesses—the leg leashes that attach them to their perches—to field jesses, which are shorter, to lessen the chance they will get tangled on branches or brambles. We are each given a leather glove for our left hand, in which we must grip the hawk's jesses, and a pouch full of yesterday's rabbit meat with which to tempt her back to our grasp after she's been flown. (The trick is not to feed her so much that she's no longer hungry enough to chase the next quarry.)
Harris's hawks are the only birds of prey that hunt in packs, a trait which supposedly makes them more willing to follow commands, or "biddable." To be biddable is key: The birds' training requires them to override their hardwired view of dogs as their natural predator, and ferrets as their natural prey. The sorting process is sufficiently fine-tuned that Hermione and Morgana will shriek at any dog other than a Brittany and kill all the ferret's undomesticated cousins.
By ten, we are halfway up Caer Caradoc. We tramp through the bracken, holding the hawks on our fists, trying to shield them from the wind that ruffles their feathers. When they get too exasperated by their handlers' incompetence, they lunge into a lunatic loop-the-loop and hang upside down from their jesses like bats.
Scoundrel, frantic, lollops ahead and doubles back, nose to the ground. The hillside is riddled with rabbit warrens; it's her job to tell us which ones are inhabited. Suddenly she points, and Wright, shushing us, sends a ferret down the hole. Alastair, Roy, and I stand upwind, our eyes veering among myriad possible exits from the warren.
More often than not, the ferrets reemerge baffled. The chief revelation is how cunning rabbits turn out to be. Rabbits have numerous ways of eluding enemies: One is to dive down to the narrowest point of the tunnel and go bottoms up, presenting a fluffy tail to the ferret, whose claws then get helplessly matted in loose fur. Another is to dart from their home into the nearest thicket of bracken, into which the hawk has no hope of following. A third is to double back and race uphill to another hiding place—uphill being an angle that the construction of both rabbit warrens and rabbit legs (short front paws, long back) favor but which obliges the birds to turn around and fly up against the wind.
Just as we're giving up hope, the Brittany startles, the hawks tug at their jesses, and a moment later, we humans catch sight of the grass-gray rabbit that has bulleted from its warren and is racing down the hill. We let loose our hawks, which plunge after the prey, swooping so low they skim the ground. In a whir of wingspan, the hawks tilt at the running rabbit; hunter and hunted collide, ricochet apart, and reconnect, barbed-wire talons glomming on to fur.
The chase is over within seconds. Wright runs downhill, with us following far behind. The winning bird—is it mine? Alastair's? We can't tell—straddles its dying prey like a pro wrestler, taking the occasional peck at its gut. The other hawk has retreated to a nearby hummock. Wright's job is to pry the victor loose from its catch and break the rabbit's neck before putting it in his pouch.
And now we must lure back our birds by placing a chunk of meat on our gloved fists and attempting to grab hold of the jesses before the hawk makes off with the prize. (Alastair gets considerable teasing from Wright for his "Scottish stinginess" in trying to tempt Morgana back not with treats but by slapping his bare arm.)
The satisfaction of having the imperious Hermione hop back onto my wrist is utterly primal. I could say that the chief joy lies in observing the choreography of dog, ferret, and bird, or in seeing how a wild creature has with infinite patience been coaxed into serving human interests. But in truth, for me, it's something more childish, less reflective: It's the race to spot the rabbit a split second before my husband does, to let my hawk rip free like a kite in a high wind, to rush downhill, shouting, "Go-go- go!" while craning to see if it is Hermione or Morgana that's wound up sitting victorious on the prey. It is raw competition, the gambler's lucky throw, except that the dice are feather-and-blood, ferocious.
By early afternoon, there is only one rabbit in Wright’s pouch, and the morning’s mist has liquidized into hard rain. We retreat to the Royal Oak pub in the village of Cardington, where the landlady offers us real ales brewed in nearby Bishop's Castle and served unfiltered, pulled straight from the cask.
"You'd have to jump to find a nicer pint," says Roy.
"Only Englishmen would pay to have their beer warm and flat," is Steve's more jaundiced verdict.
Ale is followed by "fidget pie"—gammon with spiced apples—and Roy, who's grown up with all the regulars at the bar, reminisces about arm-wrestling contests and the night it took three men to carry the village policeman home blind-drunk to his indignant wife. It's been an intensely exciting day, and we are all still hopped up and chattering with adrenaline.
Back in London Sunday night, we sit down to a dinner of roast rabbit that’s been marinated in marsala and lemon, yet still carries a memory of wet moorland, Iron Age hill forts, high wind.
"Hermione took this girl down," I say.
"That is such a lie," Alastair replies. "Didn't you see Morgana drop down on it like a kamikaze pilot?"
I see he's ready for a rabbit-hole-by-rabbit-hole recapitulation of the previous day's play.
"Hermione's a dumb killing machine," he says with a smile. "Morgana is more refined. She's the Queen Guinevere of hawks."
I think of T. H. White, alcoholic, half-mad with loneliness, teaching himself to "man" a goshawk in a gamekeeper's cottage, in the belief that this was as valid a way of maintaining one’s humanity as fighting fascism in Spain. I think of Kazakh horsemen on the steppes and Saudi princes in the desert. I begin to realize that the path from Manhattan to Caer Caradoc is shorter than I thought.
I say, "Hey, Alastair, you know what? The hunting season's only just begun."
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