There’s something mesmeric about the way a bird of prey alights on your arm. It’s to do with both the tremendous speed of approach and the stalling when it lands, an almost filmic effect of fast and slow motion.
It is also, at first, quite alarming to be jumped on by the straining talons of a trained predator. So I’m grateful for the reassuring guidance of falconer David Hughes. He warns me to keep my gauntleted forearm held high and pointing upwards, as the bird will land on the highest available part of the perch. If your arm is down, this will be your exposed shoulder, and extremely painful.
At Hawkwalk, his small falconry centre less than an hour from London in south Oxfordshire, Hughes gives personalised introductory sessions to small groups of private clients or, in my case, families with older children (aged 16, 14 and 10). The morning is spent handling birds, ranging from a peregrine-saker to a tiny sparrowhawk; the afternoon, for those that want a full day here, is spent hunting with them.
Hughes seems every inch the countryman in his green breeches and shooting socks, but he soon lets slip an unexpected past: before turning to falconry, he worked for eight years as a lion tamer at Gandey’s Circus. He also met his wife Tracey, a horse trainer, in his former employment.
There is still considerable showmanship to what he does now. Using dead chicks as bait, Hughes lets the birds loose with a flourish. They fly between our outstretched arms, so that we can be eyeballed up close by each raptor. The first surprise is the difference in weight. Hughes’s 14 birds range from a tiny sparrowhawk at just 4¼ oz, which needs to eat twice its own body weight daily, to a European eagle owl at 4½ lb, a considerable load on the wrist.
The eagle owl is a magnificent creature, with huge yellow blinking eyes and talons strong enough to puncture a lamb’s skull. It has a curious cry when it lands, best described by my teenage daughter Daisy as sounding like a fake train whistle.
The other owls, long-eared and tawny, are also impressive, but it’s the barn owl I’m most drawn to. With its white monastic face made up mostly of feathers, its skull is no bigger than a ping-pong ball.
Any sentimentality is quickly dispelled by Hughes: “Owls are so thick it’s unbelievable,” he tells us. “Just because they look solemn and keep their counsel doesn’t mean a thing.” He has more respect for the intelligence of rabbits, which we soon see put to the test when we take some of the birds hunting.
Hughes chooses two Harris hawks, which are capable of hunting for hours. Before setting off, we meet the other birds: a peregrine-saker hybrid, which combines the speed of the peregrine – up to 180mph as it flies straight down on the stoop – with the strength of the saker; and the goshawk (“a psychopath of a bird”), used by cooks in medieval times as a cheap but effective killing machine.
Harris hawks, which have been imported to Britain in increasing numbers from their native US since the late 1970s, are much valued by falconers for their ability, in Hughes’ words, “to twist and turn in the air like running dogs as they chase a rabbit down”. They are also relatively cheap – hundreds of pounds rather than the thousands commanded by sakers and gyr falcons.
We drive with the caged hawks to a 22-acre bank on the flanks of the Berkshire Downs, honeycombed with rabbit holes and with only a bit of light scrub as cover. We’re in good company – there’s already a buzzard and kestrel patrolling the skies. Hughes has ferrets and dogs to help flush out the rabbits. In autumn he can work the stubble fields, and by winter the hedgerows are clear enough for the dogs to get through, but the summer hunting tends to be restricted to grazing land.
A great deal of the day’s charm derives from Hughes’ conversation as he goes about his business, picking out fascinating details. Keeping a bird to the right weight, he explains, is an obsession with falconers, and for good reason: the bird needs to be kept to a “hunting-weight”, healthy but with enough appetite to return to the falconer to be fed. While the birds (and ferrets) are tagged with radio transmitters for retrieval, a great deal of time can be spent going over hedges and rivers to get them back.
We soon learn that any “throwing” of the bird is strictly for the movies. You don’t cast your hawk off with a princely command: it chooses when it flies. If there is a glimmer of prey, its take-off will be impossibly fast. Quite often the Harris hawks may also perch on hawthorn shrubs to get a better vantage point as the dogs and ferrets go about their business below.
The rabbits are smart enough to head upwind when pursued and, of course, know the intricate lair of burrows like the back of their paws, so most get away. But when a hawk does hit a rabbit the impact is bone crunching.
By the end of the day, the presence of a hawk on my arm has become almost reassuring: it sparks a primal feeling inside me. There’s no illusion that it is tame – it feels like an ally that for reasons of mutual convenience is choosing to work with you. That independence of spirit is perhaps what makes falconry so compelling.
A half-day session at Hawkwalk costs £50 per person (maximum of four clients); a full day, including hunting, costs £95 per person (maximum of two clients). 01235 811912; www.hawkwalk.org