Centuries before guns made taking game for the table a relatively easy sport, man teamed up with falcons and hawks in a peculiar and precarious partnership which survived in the hands of only a dedicated few in the UK — until recently. Jim Chick, veteran falconer and chairman of the UK Hawk Board, estimates that when he began training birds of prey in the early Sixties, there were perhaps just 75 other people doing the same. Now, according to the Board's latest figures, there are around 25,000. Young men and women, even children raised on the Harry Potter films featuring a variety of owls, are increasingly coming into the hobby, drawn to its darkly gothic image and paraphernalia, high-octane thrills and its reputation for being a fiendishly hard art to master. For unlike a dog, which can be cowed into obedience, or a horse, which can be controlled with bit and bridle, no bird of prey can ever truly be tamed. The best a falconer can achieve is a working partnership with these imperious lords of the skies, all the while accepting that although the bird will tolerate handling and hunting with — but not for — him, it will revert to a wild state in the blink of an eye, even after many years.
"Falconry is simply unlike anything else," says Stephen Lea, a former Sky Sports cameraman who is so addicted to hunting with his two peregrine falcons he gave up his job to spend more time pursuing his passion. "The purity of it places it apart from all other hunting. It's as wild as it gets and takes the falconer back to a primitive, elemental state we have lost in our packaged, consumerist society. You cannot be an amateur falconer. The birds need daily weighing, appropriate feeding, human contact, care for their feathers and health, training and above all, in season, several hours hunting almost daily." None of it is compatible with regular work and most falconers find a way, sooner or later, to combine the need to hunt with their birds — for it is just that — with their need to earn a living.
Surprisingly, that isn't putting new fans off — the entry-level falconry course run by Lantra (the Skills Council for land-based and environmental industries), which was introduced due to demand in 2006, has now been completed by 846 new falconers, the youngest of whom was 11. An increase in the numbers of display centres and aviaries offering trial days out is also helping to broaden the appeal of a previously dying sport. Greg Whittaker, of York Falconry, says he has to turn people away because he cannot keep up with requests for the hawks he breeds. "We have more and more people ringing us and we have to tell them all the birds are spoken for," he says.
Elsewhere, falconry's more noble origins are increasingly being used with a twist to teach high fliers corporate leadership skills. Cheshire-based business psychologist Anita Morris, who runs workshops based around falconry says, "Over its 4,000-year history, falconry was used to develop leadership skills in different cultures around the world. Often royalty were trained in falconry, not only because it was considered a sport of kings, but also because kings and princes were leaders of armies as well as countries and needed to develop leadership skills. Humans cannot impose their wishes on birds of prey, it's only through the skills of the falconer that the desired results can be achieved. Falconry is well known as the most difficult and challenging of all the hunting sports and if you talk to leaders in industry and politics, they will tell you the same as a wise falconer — management is a skill, but leadership is an art."
To describe training a hawk or falcon as 'challenging' is to undersell a process the majority of us simply aren't cut out for. Most falconers start with a chick which they have to slowly acclimatise to an alien world (ours) it is naturally inclined to be intensely averse to. But because for a bird of prey attack is generally its best form of defence, the falconer has to put up with regular shows of aggression and defiance in the form of flying at his face, talon wounds and screaming fits — or what keepers affectionately call 'tantrums'. The birds will even wilfully starve themselves if unhappy. Only through its handler's patience can the bird be persuaded to tolerate its human keeper, and the dogs or ferrets that are the other tools of the hunt. Little about the falconer's art and tools has changed since it began — the leather anklets which fit around the birds legs, attached to them the long jesses (leather straps) by which the falconer holds the bird until he is ready to release it, the handmade bells so he can hear where she is if she flies out of sight and, of course, the distinctive falcon's hood.
The word 'hoodwink', meaning to slip the hood on the bird's head to put it in a calm state, has passed into everyday language like so many other falconry terms ('fed up' is the state where a bird has had too much to eat and prefers to do nothing rather than hunt, to 'mantle' is to hide its kill by drooping its wings over it).